Jodie Foster helms this tale of a woman contending with her life and family

After a sparkling career as an actress, where she received her first Academy Award nomination at age fourteen, Jodie Foster decided to try her hand as a feature film director in the early 1990s. In 1991, the same year that she won an Academy Award for The Silence of the Lambs, she released Little Man Tate, which was well-received. Her second directorial feature, Home for the Holidays, was released twenty years ago this holiday season.

Holidays follows Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) over her Thanksgiving trip home to see her family, including parents, Adele (Anne Bancroft) and Henry (Charles Durning) and sister, Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson). The day of her departure, Claudia finds out she’s been laid off and that her daughter, Kit (Claire Danes), plans to have sex with her boyfriend while spending Thanksgiving with his family. So, things are off to a rollicking good start.

Claudia spends much of her trip trying to pretend that things back home are just fine for the sake of her parents. The only person in whom she confides regarding her current woes is her brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.).  At first, he plans to be absent from the family festivities, but ends up in the mix after all for nebulous reasons. In addition, he brings along his friend, Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), a man whom none of the family has met before.

home for the holidays - car

Image: Paramount Pictures

I realized recently that Jodie Foster might not be the household name it was when I was growing up. She was everywhere in my childhood as the star of many Disney films. Later on, she decided to be a full-time mom and acts only occasionally these days. As of this writing, her most recent on-screen appearance was in 2013’s Elysium . This in itself is anomalous to an astounding degree. A woman of her age generally doesn’t check out of the regular Hollywood machine unless she’s prepared to not work again. Foster was able to survive child stardom, have an amazing career as an adult, and carve out a niche where she can seemingly come back whenever a project she likes floats her way. She is a hero whom I’d be proud to emulate in even the tiniest of ways.

Holidays is helmed by this smart, accomplished woman, and its main character is cut from the same cloth. What Claudia isn’t, thankfully, is one of those “women who can do it all” that are too often found in films starring women of her age. Nor is she a woman who has everything except love, or a woman focused too much on her career at the sacrifice of having a family. Claudia is like many women out there; educated, passionate, hard-working, and a good parent, but still struggling to keep it all together. She is single, though this is given basically no mention as it’s presumably old news and not a defining characteristic of her personality.

The film doesn’t present a polished and perfect gathering, but rather is set in the kind of middle- class, Middle American home that more people can relate to than the opulence of, say, Kevin McCallister’s mansion in Home Alone. It isn’t an overwrought drama where the main character is going home for the first time in many years, nor is it bombastically gunning for big laughs. Instead, it lets its characters exist as real people would. The screenplay by W.D. Richter (based on a short story by Chris Radant) lets conversations flow naturally, the laughs coming from the myriad moments of subtle humor between characters rather than elaborate gags. Its greatest strength lies in the nuances given to each member of the family. Aside from Claudia, our protagonist, we have:

Adele and Henry

home for the holidays - dad

Image: Paramount Pictures

The parents of middle-aged women in holiday films are generally there to provide pressure to their offspring and tell them why they aren’t doing well enough. Refreshingly, this cliché is cast aside in favor of far more dynamic interactions. Claudia is, in fact, the obvious favorite child of both parents. Instead of slogging through well-worn territory where a mother talks to her daughter about how she should get remarried, Adele instead wants to talk about her Claud’s career in the art world. She thinks that her daughter should be doing more with her talent. “You paint as well as Vincent Van Gogh, so why isn’t some man from Japan giving you $63,000,000 for one painting?” Her dad likes to reminisce about the time he took young Claudia onto a runway to watch a plane take off and how brave she was.

Kit

While Kit doesn’t accompany her mother home, her screen time is devoted to being a smart and supportive daughter. With only one scene where Claud and Kit are physically together, the screenplay, two marvelous actresses, and great direction combine to show us in an instant what this relationship is all about. Kit doesn’t tell her mom that she’s sleeping with her boyfriend to upset her (which she inevitably does); she does so because she respects her and wants to keep her informed. To see a mother and daughter portrayed in such a way on screen is a beautiful thing to behold, and all too rare.

Tommy

home for the holidays - downey

Image: Paramount Pictures

While this film was released twenty years ago, the struggles that Tommy faces as a gay man returning home to his traditional Midwestern family are still all too common. Tommy’s parents aren’t openly derisive regarding his sexual orientation, but the audience gets the idea that it’s one of those things they just don’t talk about. Foster’s own homosexuality was something of an open secret in show business for many years, before her “official” coming out at the Golden Globes in 2013 (where she was given the Cecil B. DeMille Award). The lack of preciousness with which the subject is treated is also a gift, especially considering that in 1995 it could have been used to make a big statement. There is no “out and proud” speech, and Tommy refuses to be a victim, even when faced with open hostility from his sister, Joann. Claudia and Tommy’s relationship is one of the best aspects of the film. Hunter and Downey, Jr. have incredible chemistry, and a lifetime of shared laughs and tears is felt behind everything they say to one another.

Joann

Claudia: “Mom, Joann is a saint.”

Adele: “That’s for the Pope to decide. Right now, she’s a pain in my ass.”

Joann is, frankly, the most unlikable of the main characters. Claudia’s assignment of sainthood is likely due to the fact that her sister aspires to perfection in the way of women from decades past; good figure, neat outward appearance, and as mainstream as can be. In reality, she is high- strung, neurotic, and homophobic. It can be argued that these are defense mechanisms she uses against her parents and siblings (among others). She is the only one of the siblings not to pursue a career and move out of town. The pressure of having to choose between being a mother and having a career is one that most women still know all too well. What’s intriguing about Joann within the context of the film is the portrayal of the relationship between the two sisters. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Claudia makes a last- ditch effort to part on good terms with Joann. She is rebuffed as Jo tells her, “If I didn’t know you. If I just met you on the street and you gave me your number, I’d throw it away.” Usually, a scene like this would be an opportunity for the sisters to put aside their differences and come together in the spirit of the holiday. Not in this gem. These two sisters aren’t oppositional because of some specific event in their pasts, or because one is a wild child and the other a goody goody. They are simply sisters who don’t have much in common and don’t really like one another.

Home for the Holidays takes a concept familiar to the average Western moviegoer, the holiday film, and infuses it with deft characterization normally reserved for high brow dramas. It transcends its genre, not relying on any holiday tropes to prop up the superb story, as well as giving us one of the most fully realized female lead characters in many a moon.