“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”
– Robert Frost, 'Death of the Hired Man'
“My family is so dysfunctional!” People say that so much nowadays that I’m starting to think that dysfunctional is the new functional.
Maybe the thing with families is they’re just gonna be trouble sometimes. People naturally get into conflict with each other; the difference with family conflict is you can’t really walk away from it. You can get new friends, new co-workers, new mates at the pub. But you’re pretty much stuck with your family. Case in point: you can move from New Hampshire to Los Angeles and get all new friends and make a whole new life and reinvent yourself, but your mom is still going to give you a hard time about what a disappointment you’ve turned out to be regardless of where you live. Oh, by the way, don’t forget to wear sunscreen out there in California, mister.
And yet… what would we do without them? At the very big moments in life, who shows up? Friends, perhaps. A close co-worker? Sure, sometimes. Weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs, funerals, commencements… who are the people there in the front row? It’s the brother you fought with constantly, the sister who was always wearing your clothes, the mom who didn’t approve of your latest boyfriend, the dad who rolls his eyes and says, “What the hell is wrong with you?” when you come home with a dent in the car that you swear wasn’t your fault. As irritating as they can be, they’re the ones there, right in the front row.
Here are a few movies about Thanksgiving and the dysfunctional family—both how we survive them and how they inspire us.
April (Katie Holmes) is in her 20s and lives in a terrible, cramped apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when she decides to host Thanksgiving dinner for her family, with whom she doesn’t really get along. She doesn’t know how to cook to begin with, and things are tense because her mother (Patricia Clarkson) is dying of cancer, her boyfriend (Derek Luke) suddenly decides to buy a suit—on Thanksgiving—to make a good impression, and to top it all off, her oven stops working. This movie is sweet, sad, funny, and heartbreaking, much like director Peter Hedges’s earlier work, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Your homework for the Thanksgiving weekend is to watch this movie. No excuses.
It’s Thanksgiving, 1983. A hurricane is barreling up the Atlantic Coast toward Virginia, and Marty Pascal (Josh Hamilton) decides to bring home his fiancée Lesly (Tori Spelling) to meet his family. Pretty standard idea for the holidays, right? Except Marty’s sister, Jackie (Parker Posey), has recently been released from a psychiatric unit and is obsessed with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (she’s even dressed like her, down to the pink suit and pillbox hat). The hurricane hits, they reenact the Kennedy assassination… and then things get weird. A brilliant black comedy that will reassure you that your family isn’t quite as nutty as you feared.
A bunch of damn hippies celebrate Thanksgiving and then decide to get rid of a huge pile of garbage. Hijinks ensue. Is this movie completely dated and kinda stupid? Yes. Is it a lot of fun, too? Oh, most definitely. Directed by Arthur Penn, and believe it or not, this is the movie he made after Bonnie and Clyde and before Little Big Man. Really? You’re saying. Yes, really.
Every time I see this movie, I never fail to get a huge lump in my throat when goofball and annoying shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) reveals to high strung marketing executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) what’s really going on with his life. Candy is absolutely perfect in this movie. It was his finest performance. This is a John Hughes classic.
Thanksgiving is a truly American holiday. It’s not affiliated with any particular religious group, it has historical roots, and the only requirement is a minimal amount of gratitude and a maximal amount of food. This movie looks at Thanksgiving being celebrated by four different families in Los Angeles—Vietnamese, Latino, Jewish, and African American. And every family is struggling through something. A warm and unifying movie about how all families have many of the same problems and many of the same joys. Directed by the British director Gurinder Chadha, with a huge cast that includes Julianna Margulies, Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodard, and Dennis Haysbert.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.