Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: It’s 1995 Week here at The A.V. Club, which means we’re shouting out some of the forgotten or underrated triumphs of that year.
Jodie Foster’s Home For The Holidays begins on a soothing note: an opening-credits sequence (set to Rusted Root’s “Evil Ways”) that details, in delicate close-up, the restoration work of Claudia “Clyde” Larson (Holly Hunter). The movie continues in this register for about five minutes before erupting in a flurry of activity: Claudia is laid off from her job at a Chicago museum, and reacts to the news by locking lips with her older boss; on the way to the airport, Claudia’s teenage daughter (Claire Danes) reveals her plans to lose her virginity over the holiday break; and, on top of this, Claudia is battling a cold, which leaves her a sneezing mess on the plane, clutching Kleenex in her hand and squeezing nasal spray into her nostrils. Before the flight takes off, Claudia calls her closest sibling and breaks down into tears while speaking to the answering machine.
The roller-coaster tempo of these 10 minutes—working, laughing, kissing, arguing, crying—sums up the draining emotional experience of Home For The Holidays. Set in Baltimore during Thanksgiving and structured around a series of pithy title cards (“Flying,” “Mom and Dad,” “Company”), Foster’s movie takes a hard, deep look at the construction of the family: what keeps its members together, what drives them apart. Don’t let Hunter’s chipper demeanor and the sitcom-ish setup fool you. By the time Foster reaches the centerpiece dinner sequence (an amazing feat of editing by Lynzee Klingman), her vision of the familial reunion has intensified to life-or-death, do-or-die proportions, with each exhumed secret and pointed insult sending shudders across the table. And yet, underneath this inescapable gravity, Foster presses for a fundamental erraticism: The highest emotional stakes—a conservative sister’s writhing resentment for her gay brother and unattached, city-living sister—are only fully exposed after Robert Downey Jr. dumps a turkey on Cynthia Stevenson’s dress.
Foster directed herself in her feature debut, Little Man Tate (1991), but she’s absent from the screen in Holidays, and much of the movie’s magic derives from her willingness to give her actors free rein. Naturally, this approach leads to frequent unevenness—any given viewer might find Downey’s prankishness too loud, or Geraldine Chaplin’s frailty too quirky and out-of-the-blue—but it also allows constant surprises to emerge. How many other directors would have had the intuition to pair the burly character actor Charles Durning with Graduate goddess Anne Bancroft, or assign the seemingly throwaway, one-scene role of a lonely, dopey repairman to the guy who would go on to play Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn)? Holding all this chaos together, meanwhile, is Hunter, who infuses an established Foster archetype (hard-working single mother) with her own charming, aw-shucks persona. Catching the marvelous intricacies of Hunter’s performance—like the way she fiddles with a napkin as Downey informs the family of Claudia’s recent string of disasters—is an exercise in and of itself.
Availability: Home For The Holidays is available on DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It is also currently streaming in full on YouTube.