Get your turkey on! Few holidays embrace gluttony and laziness like America’s premier competitive eating contest that is Thanksgiving. Most of us end up watching old movies, playing board games, or simply tying one on while we witness yet another set of NFL games meant to hypnotize us with promises of Black Friday sales and family bonding. ToM wants you to enjoy your turkey, cranberry sauce, and Uncle Dan’s homemade brew while considering the plight of Detroit families of the 1980s like Mr. Mom’s Jack and Caroline Butler; or maybe Thanksgiving with the family just reminds you of being trapped in the middle of the Spanish Civil War with a cowed mother and a sadistic stepfather.
In that spirit, we’ve compiled this rundown of our past stories on family and film; trust us, while it gets deep in moments, we also keep it lighter than the cool whip on top of your grandmother’s warm apple pie.
Rachel Getting Married
Remember the first time you brought your significant other over for Thanksgiving or Christmas? Hopefully it went better than the family conflagration that is Rachel Getting Married. More Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the Jonathan Demme film provides a window into the whirling activity of a certain kind of very upper-middle-class, liberal family’s big day: Brazilian samba, South Asian saris, and a generous helping of open-minded and vaguely sanctimonious multi-culti goodness. The hurried present tense of the title conveys something happening, that the movie itself is about a process; shot in a handheld, vérité style that captures the feeling of being in the midst of a big, messy, family gathering, Rachel Getting Married offers a convincing portrayal of a clan in slow-motion meltdown, trying to save face while long-simmering resentments and chronic mental illness (particularly that of the pill-popping, “using” Kym, played by Anne Hathaway in a career-topping performance) threaten to derail the whole ostentatious affair. Rachel Getting Married is (hopefully) the kind of movie that can make you glad for the family you have, even when Aunt Ida launches her yearly Obamacare rant at the dinner table.
Thirty years ago Michael Keaton and Teri Garr gave viewers Jack and Caroline Butler, a Detroit area couple dealing with the complexity of 1980s recession America. Like a moral, family-oriented Don Draper, Caroline’s success at work represented the shifting sands of the nation’s economy as women rapidly gained greater footholds in traditionally male dominated fields. Likewise, Jack’s adjustment to caring for the Butler brood seems prescient today as hipster stay-at-home dads have become signs of urban domesticity. Few films provide both comedic relief and real insight into marriage, masculinity, and the economic pressures afflicting American families in the late 20th century. At least stick around for the “obstacle course” scene which will undoubtedly remind you of the time everyone scrambled to find grandma’s lost dentures at the dinner table lest they find them in their brussel sprouts.
See “Modern Family: Mr. Mom and Fatherhood in the 21st Century” (7/8/2013)
Pan’s Labyrinth and Beasts of The Southern Wild
For many of us, the holidays are mainly about survival — getting through a day or two without discussing politics, religion, or what’s really going on with Cousin Joey and his “roommate.” These two films tell different stories of young people facing very grownup problems, and narrating their own struggles through a deeply personal, if escapist, mythology. In Guillermo del Toro’s classic, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) has to do deal with the reality of her vulnerable mother taking up with a cruel, fascist commander during Franco’s effort to wipe out remaining leftist insurgency in the countryside; she leaves her trying circumstances to explore a fantasy underworld in the woods, interacting with fairies and fauns even as the world around her collapses. In 2012’s breakout indie hit Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is an intrepid little girl who has to navigate a changing social and political environment, as ecological disruptions force the eccentric and remote community of the Bathtub, where she lived with her father, into contact with the wider world. While its subtext about Katrina/climate change may prompt unpleasant discussions on the couch after dinner, Beasts is still a beautiful story about the enduring bond between a parent and child; and both films ultimately show the love of family and community triumphing against the longest of odds.
Take Shelter and Melancholia
The connection between the holidays and mental illness is well-known, and these two films show psychologically dysfunctional families at their finest. In Take Shelter, a struggling, working-class dad begins to fear for his family’s future when he begins having paranoid visions of a coming catastrophe. Curtis (Michael Shannon) begins plowing ridiculous amounts of time and money into building an underground shelter to protect his wife and children, even as his social relationships crumble around him. In Melancholia, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an apparently bipolar young woman who gets married, then divorced/annulled (?), and subsequently moves in with her more stable sister Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg) when she lapses into a crushing depression. Like Curtis, Justine begins to anticipate a coming cataclysm, in the form of a stray planet that may or may not crash into the Earth; but unlike the protagonist of Take Shelter, the fundamentally hopeless Justine looks toward the end with a resigned sort of equanimity, and even fascination. Both films offer some of the most compelling portrayals of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and depression, to appear on the screen in recent years — though perhaps not as engrossing as the mental illness you see at the Thanksgiving dinner table each year.
The Films of Wes Anderson
Sure, his films might be full of twee and perhaps they occupy worlds that are equal parts fancy and J.D. Salinger short stories, but Wes Anderson also tackles sexuality in very adult ways. “Few filmmakers have made being cuckolded seem both adorable and tragic,” indeed, Anderson’s ability to collaborate with others has helped balance his tendency toward cuteness lending a certain weight to his depictions of sex and sexuality throughout many of his films. Kind of like the holidays themselves, Anderson’s films tap into nostalgia, tragedy, and conceptions of family in ways that feel simultaneously backward looking and contemporary.
Mildred Pierce and The Reckless Moment
In the late 1940s, the return of American soldiers abroad sparked fears over the place of women in American society. Having expanded their role in American society due to wartime necessity, many hoped women would return quietly to their roles in the domestic sphere. Film noirs like Mildred Pierce and The Reckless Moment provide none-too subtle reminders of this impulse and provide insights into the trajectory of postwar gender dynamics in which economically ambitious mothers, Mildred Pierce, or overwhelmed matriarchs, The Reckless Moment, found themselves adrift without the proper male guidance.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl
Movies like Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High may have focused on the vagaries of high school existence amid mall drenched 1980’s Southern California but they also provided real insights into the family dynamics of late twentieth century America. From the ex-hippie parents of Valley Girl to the non-existent mothers and fathers of Fast Times, characters in both movies created archetypes that other filmmakers employed in their own films. Seriously, a righteously blazed Spicoli could easily plow through three turduckens with all the fixin’s and then double down for some brownie ala mode. Three decades later, both films feel like previews of what was to come rather than simply feckless nostalgic adventures of a confused future Generation X.