Thanksgiving, despite being increasingly under fire from the politically correct police, remains a culturally significant holiday, the catalyst for family reunions, charitable giving, and most importantly, a reminder to express gratitude for our blessings. While some people look forward to breaking bread with family and friends, volunteering at soup kitchens, or taking advantage of Black Friday sales, many others dread the annual ritual because it reinforces their family’s inherent dysfunction or reminds them that they are alone.
Hollywood’s depiction of our holiday malaise is well-trodden ground. While there is already a plethora of Christmas movies, with Hallmark, Amazon, Netflix, and GAC Family releasing new ones each year, there are very few films where the central action takes place on Thanksgiving. I have picked three movies from different decades (a dark poignant drama, a quirky independent film, and a perennial holiday classic) where a pivotal plot element takes place on Thanksgiving which ultimately leads to the principal character(s)’s redemption and renewal of faith.
Set in 1973 in New Canaan, Connecticut, The Ice Storm, directed by award-winning Ang Lee, is the story of two affluent couples with intertwined lives: Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver). When the story begins, Ben is having an affair with Janey, a liaison that developed out of frustration and boredom with their current lives. The Hood and Carver children are also presented as sympathetic but disaffected privileged adolescents experimenting with illicit drug use and casual sex. Wendy Hood’s (Christina Ricci) delivery of grace at Thanksgiving dinner evokes this restlessness.
“Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.”
The film’s locus is an ice storm that grips New Canaan later that weekend when both sets of parents attend what turns out to be a key party, a staple of the swinging ’70s. The Hood and Carver children are also involved in their own adventures that night. While Wendy is engaged in sexual experimentation with both of the Carver boys (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) takes off on his own odyssey in the form of a train ride to the opulent New York apartment of his boarding school classmate Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). It is against this backdrop of affluence, boredom, and dangerous weather conditions that tragedy ensues which ultimately is the trigger for the two families to reclaim their values and adjust their priorities. While The Ice Storm is a disturbing film, I still highly recommend it for its powerful message, hypnotic cinematography, and excellent performances.
Pieces of April is also the story of a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving gathering. April Burns (Katie Holmes), who is living in a New York City tenement, invites her estranged family to a homecooked Thanksgiving dinner. The impetus for the invitation is that her mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson) is dying of breast cancer and this Thanksgiving may be her last. Although suspicious of April’s motives and doubtful of her culinary ability, Joy, April’s father Jim (Oliver Platt), sister Beth (Allison Pill), brother Timmy (John Gallagher Jr.), and Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond) take the pilgrimage from suburbia to New York’s Lower East Side.
We soon discover that April’s family’s concerns about her ability to cook a Thanksgiving meal were not misplaced when she realizes on Thanksgiving morning that her unused stove is broken. After resolving that she must still provide a homecooked meal, she knocks on a neighbor’s door who lends her their oven for a few hours. But as the neighbor also has a Thanksgiving meal to cook, they direct her to finish the cooking in a second neighbor’s oven. Much of the plot shows April’s trials and tribulations as she runs back and forth borrowing people’s ovens. And while some of these moments are funny, others are frustrating. By asking her neighbors for help, April expresses vulnerability which makes most of her neighbors want to help her. The film also depicts the Burns family’s road trip, which is largely dedicated to disparaging April’s past reckless behavior. While Jim is willing to give April the benefit of the doubt, Joy and Beth are unforgiving. One of the best lines in the film is when Joy says “I only have one nice April memory. Only one. She was about three or four. And she was sitting at the window. And she turned to me and said ‘Oh mother, don’t you just love every day?'” Beth then pipes up and says: “That was me.” Despite these revelations, April’s tenacity keeps us rooting for her. When we see the girl who almost set her family’s house on fire making place cards, we want her dinner to be a success. Pieces of April is a thoroughly delightful film filled with pathos and humor. And Katie Holmes is wonderful in this transitional role from adolescent to young adult.
Most people think this classic story of a department store Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn) who succeeds in persuading Doris, a jaded divorced mother (Maureen O’Hara), and her precocious daughter Susan (Natalie Wood) that he is Santa Claus is a Christmas film, but its critical plot elements actually take place on Thanksgiving.
Miracle on 34th Street is a more serious film than its plotline implies. Hardened by her broken marriage, Doris wants to protect Susie from life’s disappointments. Consequently, she decides to only tell Susie the absolute truth with no fairy tales, no Santa Claus, and no fantasy of any kind. Two miracles take place on Thanksgiving day. First, her chance encounter with Kris (Edmund Gwenn) after her hired Santa shows up to work intoxicated leads to her employing him as the Macy’s store Santa where his proximity to her and Susie enables him to chip away at their emotional barriers. On Thanksgiving, Doris experiences a second miracle when she agrees at Susie’s urging to invite neighbor Fred Gailey (John Payne) to Thanksgiving dinner. Fred later not only successfully defends Kris when he is put on trial for lunacy but also ultimately becomes Doris’s fiancé.
Hollywood continues to produce holiday movies because the holidays evoke a broad spectrum of emotions that we often have difficulty addressing. And sometimes we just need the reassurance that people everywhere share our joys, sorrows, and frustrations. Or, as Fred Gailey says in Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.” I have probably seen the movie 50 times, and that line never fails to choke me up, as it is a reminder to never lose hope and to always be grateful.
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