Thanksgiving at the Movies
You know you’re entering post-adulthood when Thanksgiving is finally your favorite holiday.
Christmas is, of course, the domain of children; young adults party all night on New Years’ Eve and possibly Halloween; and eventually you just want a simple day where you’re not expected to do anything except sit down with people that you love, eat too much, have dessert anyway, and rub your belly over a game of Monopoly or an old movie.
One of the reasons I’ve grown to love Thanksgiving is the lack of pop culture trappings around it—I might not love it as much if Thanksgiving decorations hit the stores or Thanksgiving carols consumed the radio in early October. And yet, the simplicity of the holiday and the inherent conflict surrounding a meal with members of one’s biological family that you perhaps only see once a year can make for some terrific movies.
When I asked my friends about their favorite Thanksgiving film, the overwhelming favorite was Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), directed by John Hughes. Admittedly, it’s my least favorite of the movies I’ll list here, mostly because it’s not about family at all.
Instead, the movie focuses on two strangers, Neal (Steve Martin) and Del (the late, great John Candy), who are attempting to get from New York to the Chicago suburbs in time for the carving of the turkey, but are being foiled at every turn. I will admit that the film is funny, especially if your comedic tastes tend toward the cringeworthy, as most of the laughs depend upon one or both men being embarrassed or humiliated.
It’s as homophobic as you would expect a film of the late 80s to be (at one point, both men scream like cranky toddlers when they realize that Del’s hand found its way to Neal’s inner thigh as they slept). But of the three, this is probably the best one to watch after dinner with your family of origin, as it will make you thankful that you’re together and warm and not actually spending time with an annoying stranger in a freezing car.
A movie that I like a whole lot more (but you probably only want to watch at a “Friendsgiving” with your chosen family) is Home for the Holidays (1995), directed by Jodie Foster. This one spans a weekend with a woman (Holly Hunter) who travels from the city to spend the holiday with an overbearing mother and amiable father (the late, great Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), her gay brother (Robert Downey, Jr.) and the sister (Cynthia Stevenson) who tries to do the right thing, but never gets the thanks she thinks she deserves.
Beyond that, there aren’t many plot points of note, other than old resentments bubbling up, parental expectations that won’t ever be met, and the occasional tender moment that makes it all worthwhile—including a quiet scene between Hunter and Durning that never fails to make me cry.
What’s especially noteworthy about this film for queer audiences (owing in part, no doubt, to its queer director) is that the obligatory big family secret is a clandestine wedding between Downey and his boyfriend. It makes for poignant viewing when it occurs to you today that in 1995, this ceremony had no legal standing whatsoever.
My favorite Thanksgiving movie ever, one that I try to re-watch every year around this time, is Pieces of April (2003), written and directed by Peter Hedges. This one is really two movies that alternate back and forth.
The first is about April (Katie Holmes) and her boyfriend (Derek Luke), as they attempt to prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for her visiting family. It’s a messy process, especially after their oven breaks, and April is forced to depend upon the kindness of strangers in the form of her neighbors in her New York City walkup (including Lillias White and a decidedly unkind Sean Hayes).
The second movie is about her family traveling into the city, led by a dying mother (Patricia Clarkson), a doting father (Oliver Platt), a grandmother (Alice Drummond), and siblings (Allison Pill and John Gallagher). In this second film, we learn that April is something of a black sheep, and that only her father is especially on board with the idea of a Thanksgiving with her. The idea that this is probably the last chance for April to reconnect with her acid-tongued mother before she dies is never said out loud, but hangs over the entire story, giving what is otherwise a very funny, wry tale some dramatic heft.
All three movies are available to rent in most streaming formats; Pieces of April can be seen for free by members of Amazon Prime.
So Happy Thanksgiving, CAMPers, whether you’re spending the day with your family of origin or your family of choice! ▼
Eric C. Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator living in Washington D.C. and co-host of a weekly podcast about pop culture.