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1995’s star-studded Home for the Holidays is the big family movie Thanksgiving deserves

Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., and Anne Bancroft gather around the big dinner table.

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Home for the Holidays
Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning play matriarch and patriarch in Home for the Holidays.
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Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for November 18 through 24 is Home for the Holidays (1995), which is available to stream on Amazon and available to digitally rent on Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon.

Thanksgiving gets the short end of the stick when it comes to holiday movies. Sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas — both of which overflow with themed cinematic treats — America’s premier celebration of gluttony (and/or gratitude) rarely pops up on the big screen, except as a sidebar to some other story. And when you consider just how focused Hollywood is nowadays on selling its product internationally, Thanksgiving, which is celebrated in only a small handful of countries, seems even more down for the count.

Enter Jodie Foster’s second directorial effort, 1995’s Home for the Holidays — a warm, messy comedy about how warm and messy family can be. It doesn’t really tell a story so much as chronicle a sequence of events, but it captures something ineffable about how going back home to squabble with relatives and eat lots of food can add a nostalgic glow to the chill of late November. Or, as Claudia (Holly Hunter), the movie’s protagonist puts it when talking with her sister, Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson), “We don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.”

The plot, such as it is, involves Claudia flying home to Baltimore after being fired from her Chicago art restoration job, all the while fretting about how her teenage daughter (a young Claire Danes, fresh off My So-Called Life) might spend an unsupervised Thanksgiving sleeping with her boyfriend. (To be fair, her daughter announces this as her intention while dropping off her mom at the airport.)

Along the way, Claudia and her family navigate a fleet of very ’90s hot-button issues, particularly involving Claudia’s younger brother, Tommy (Robert Downey Jr., at his nerviest and most-addicted-to-heroin-est), whom Joanne outs as gay to the rest of the family when she gets angry at him. But the film’s of-its-era concerns are also reflected in Claudia’s mother’s frustration that Claudia is still a single mom, who won’t just settle down with a nice furnace repairman (played by David Strathairn, because even the one-scene characters in this movie are played by somebody you’ll recognize).

Home for the Holidays
Claudia gets picked up by her parents at the airport.

Fortunately, Tommy has traveled home with a friend, Leo (Dylan McDermott), and there are sparks between Claudia and Leo that might turn into something more, if the two had more time to spend together than the 24 hours of Thanksgiving Day. Blending the “big family gets together for a holiday” genre with the romantic comedy is a very old storytelling device, but it keeps getting hauled out because it works, dammit, and Home for the Holidays is careful not to suggest that Claudia and Leo are destined to share a love for the ages — there’s simply some chemistry and the potential for something special if they ever find time to get to know each other without her family swarming around.

I would never call Home for the Holidays an all-time classic, but like Thanksgiving itself, there’s comfort to be had in settling around its very big table. When the film closes with footage of Claudia watching her family disperse on a snowy, post-Thanksgiving morning, it has earned the melancholy the characters feel in that moment.

Home for the Holidays works because it doesn’t try too hard. It knows these characters will do this again, and again, and again, even if we don’t get to drop in on their future family gatherings. Like a family photo, the movie is a snapshot of a time and a place, one that leaves us to extrapolate everything that happens after the photo is taken, wishing only good things for its subjects.

Watch the trailer for Home for the Holidays:

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