Family, Sibling Warfare & Love

Home for the Holidays Family Sibling Warfare Love

Holidays are getting close and they’re complicated enough without COVID-19. Now you have to think twice (or, at least for different reasons) whether you can risk going Home for The Holidays. The usual question is: Do you want to go home to family, with all the quirks, neuroses, and old sibling warfare that Jodie Foster’s 1995 film lays bare in its anxiety-ridden yet comedic ways? But what if you can’t go home and you need the love that’s there too, even if it sometimes drives you crazy? We all need a happy ending right now. Home for The Holidays has one. What does it take? Remembering our “brave selves,” as Claudia Larson must rediscover, to give up the old fears that interfere with much-needed hope. Patience with ourselves and a dose of courage are the essential ingredients to get there.

Home for the Holidays – For Better (Or Not?)

Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter), Home for the Holiday’s main character, doesn’t have much patience. It’s Thanksgiving and life isn’t going well for her. She’s been fired from her job, in desperation kissed her older boss, doesn’t have friends, and to top it all off, she’s “sick as a dog.” This isn’t a good time to go home: “God, I hate the holidays.”

What’s there to like, if you’re all alone and your teenage daughter doesn’t want to be with you? Well, you suck it up and go home to Mom (Anne Bancroft) and Dad (Charles Durning). No, it’s not exactly where Claudia wants to be.

Claudia’s anxious on a good day (her mom’s very anxious too). And, now, she’s spinning out; no job, and her 16-year-old daughter, Kitt (Claire Danes) is growing up and making her own decisions, even about having sex. Plus, Kitt steps in and acts like the mom: “You’ll be ok, just remember “Float, just float, mom ….”

But how does Claudia manage her oblivious interfering mother, difficult sister, JoAnn (Cynthia Stevenson), and eccentric Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin) without her best ally, younger brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.)? He isn’t supposed to show up. So, she leaves him a sad message detailing her recent traumas. One can always hope, right?

“There she is, she looks so skinny, I can see your roots, Claudia.” That’s the greeting she gets from mom at the airport. Dad drives like a maniac. Mom anxiously chain-smokes: “Slow down, you’re making me nervous.” Dad brushes her off: “You? You’re the Rock of Gibraltar.” Plus, Mom’s made Claudia’s “favorite meatloaf.” She doesn’t eat meat.

Talk about what some people in a family just don’t see. What do you do with that?

You Tell Yourself: “I Can Take Care of Myself”

You try to tell yourself you don’t need them, even when you do. Or that you can take care of yourself when you can’t. It’s hard to turn to people who just don’t get you.

“Float, just float…” Claudia’s struggling with fears of failure and loneliness. But it’s hard for her to let anyone in, including her own mother. She must do it herself, which is why she is alone. Scared to let anyone close. We later see it with Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott).

It’s a pride thing. She knows she’s anxious and has lost her job. Doesn’t want to show how vulnerable she is; how much she feels like a nobody – and scared. But is it treating yourself well, to cast off help that is offered? In her way, Claudia’s mom tries.

Ok, so she points out how skinny you are, how your roots are showing, and can’t remember for the life of her that you’re a vegetarian. But when push comes to shove and you’ve lost your job? “I’ll kill them. I have $1000 of my own, right under the rug. You just ask me.” Claudia can’t get past her shame: “I can take care of myself, damn it.”

Plus, her family has a lot of upheavals. Holidays stir things up and when you’re already insecure, that doesn’t feel safe. Especially when old sibling jealousies intrude. Rivalries don’t die easily. And here we have the Larson family –all together at dinner – vying for what each feels they haven’t received. Or, like Claudia, trying not to want anything.

Because sometimes your family is too much and you don’t even feel (or want to be) related. You’re different and wish you had a family with much fewer problems and strife.

Who Are These People? Where Did I Come From?

You can’t imagine where you came from. At the Larson Thanksgiving table, there’s mom’s spinster sister, Aunt Glady. She makes necklaces of fruit loops, has 101 plants, seemingly to block out longing for the unrequited love of her sister, Helen’s husband:

“Henry Larsen is the best thing on 2 legs. He kissed me when I was 16 and he was 21 … he made all my dreams come true … for her.” She can’t have him, so in her jealousy, drinks too much and unloads it all, giving the whole family an unwanted earful. Fantasy or reality? Dad looks embarrassed. Mom tries to cover it up by being the good hostess.

Then there’s Tommy. He eggs Glady on. The adored youngest child, the fact that he’s gay is rejected by sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her husband. Tommy deals with his anxiety about not being accepted, by being a manically frenzied tease; the family clown, in everyone’s face, he can’t stop himself – pretending he doesn’t care; getting some kind of attention.

And, then he butchers the turkey, which ends up in Joanne’s lap. A kind of retribution? She’s furious, close to hysteria, feels she’s always the brunt of the joke, screaming, “get it off me.” There’s turkey juice, on her head, Dad worries about his tie and thinks it’s funny. Joanne is hurt, beleaguered, the oldest, feeling she does it all, for their parents.

Joanne’s jealousy is expressed in resentment of Claudia and Tommy, who live away. Families can be like this. Claudia tries to console her, saying: “We don’t have to like each other, Jo, but we’re family.” But, Jo will have none of it: “This has been a complete holiday nightmare. I have to go.” And, that’s the end of any hope for “togetherness.”

So, What Makes Claudia Scared to Love?

Not being able to count on togetherness doesn’t help with fear. Plus, there are her mother’s “well-meaning (?)” criticisms: “Your roots are showing,” which has deeper implications: Mom has white hair and wears a wig. The message: “You don’t show what’s underneath, not your real feelings.” The reality is, Claudia has a lot of feelings.

After seeing a hopeless Russell Terziak (David Strathairn), a man she rejected, Claudia feels guilty. And, Tommy says to his friend, employee, and guest at dinner, Leo Fish: “She has feelings and actually feels them, which is great. She’ll bounce back. Trust me on this.” He doesn’t see the whole story either. It’s not that easy all by yourself.

Claudia’s depressed, after losing her job, her daughter growing up, having no man in her life. And no one gets it, except maybe Leo Fish. At least he asked if she was losing her mind, just a few minutes after he arrived. And was almost hit with her Dad’s baseball bat because Tommy insisted that they sneak in at night and “surprise them,” coming Home for the Holidays.

Yet, what does Claudia do with these feelings, when no one’s interested in hearing them? She blocks out what scares her; tells herself she doesn’t want love. Certainly not what her parents have. They love each other, but constantly make jabs, like, annoyed: “Half the time he’s right over my shoulder or I’m scared I’ll never see him again”

Helen teasingly calls him “Tubby,” for all the desserts he sneaks. And, Dad? He’s everything good-humoredly rolls off his back; which makes him insensitive to his kid’s feelings. These quirks make it hard to expect much from love. And, Claudia doesn’t.

Love Where You Don’t Expect to Find It

Yet it’s important to see what these parents do have – in spite of the limitations that have made Claudia scared. “Tubby” is affectionate. Her dad shows his love by saying to her mom: “Come here, gorgeous,” as he kisses her and spins her around the room. A song plays: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone …” That is if you can let yourself.

Clearly, Claudia’s been hurt by love in addition to her mom and dad’s flaws. Now there’s Leo Fish. He’s quite attractive and attentive, but Claudia’s sure he’s gay. After all, he arrived at Home for the Holidays with her brother Tommy and seemed to be Tommy’s new partner.

Wrong, he’s Tommy’s employee and pushed his way into an invitation to Thanksgiving because he saw Claudia’s photo and wanted to meet her. She doesn’t expect anyone to want her and why would she meet someone “home for the holidays,” anyway? Was just trying to get through the headaches and upheaval of another family get-together.

Turns out, Leo’s a sensitive guy. He gets her, even her fear. She tries to run away, but he comes after her, knocking on the door of her childhood bedroom, in spite of her father’s baseball bat: “I’m taking a huge chance, that’s what life is all about.” Claudia can’t let herself.

She finds every excuse in the book – they live so far apart. Just needs to go home, nag her kid, find a job. “You’re scared,” he says. “Be brave, don’t be scared.” She closes the door, not only on Leo. But on her own terror that what she’s facing is only more loss. He respectfully walks down the stairs. Away. Not pushing her. At least, not yet.

Don’t Let Old Stuff Scare You Away from Love

The old stuff, the sibling feuds, mother’s criticisms, dad’s insensitivity, never feeling good enough, and how it plays out later in life – can get in the way. Don’t let it. Home for the Holidays shows us why.

As Claudia is on the way to the airport, her Dad asks her: “Penny for your thoughts?” “I let him get away, didn’t I?” Yes, she did, her old fears took over. But Mom puts it in perspective, as she says goodbye: “There’s never enough time, right? Hold my hand, Tubby.” This is what Claudia has to face. Why waste the precious time you have?

Luckily, Leo won’t let her. When she’s on the plane, who walks down the aisle to sit right next to her? Carrying the old lamp Aunt Glady gave him? Leo. There he is walking right towards her. He wasn’t going to let her turn away from a chance at love. Tommy, who’s just secretly married his own love, gave Leo a “vacation” from work to go get her.

Some old fears must be given up – such as Claudia’s certainty there is no one who cares about her feelings; she’ll only be left; that she’s weak and a failure (even at love). But some old things are worth keeping. Aunt Glady’s, old lamp to shed some light and the courageous little girl that her surprisingly sentimental dad reminds her she was.

He saw that Claudia when he took his three children to watch the very first 747 take off. Dad was an aerospace mechanic with a special pass. They all stood holding hands. She was “fearless” dad tells her, as she watched the huge plane lift off. Joanne and Tommy were scared. Not Claudia, not then. She needs to remember that little brave self.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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