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The Thanksgiving Day dinner is that staple of film drama, and the dramatic center of comedy: the tradition, joy, tension of the family gathering, fueled by mountains of turkey, sweet potato, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and intra-familial angst.
Though most family get-togethers in life are not opportunities for high drama, or low comedy, in Thanksgiving themed movies and plays relationships and emotions are drawn large and likely to be fraught—because if they weren’t, then why would we want to watch them?
We are engaged, even enthralled, because we know how it feels. We might not wind up with a turkey stuck on our heads (shout-out to the best ever episode of Friends), but we can sympathize with our smaller-scale experiences.
4 Thanksgiving themed movies you shouldn't miss
Home for the Holidays
In Home for the Holidays (1995), each member of the family falls too easily into his or her childhood-defined role. In fact, one of the predictable tensions is how the generations cannot comprehend how these roles might change with adulthood. Ann Bancroft is Mom, indomitable and confused about who her children have become. Holly Hunter has come home looking for comfort but, as the oldest daughter, does not know where it will come from. Robert Downey Jr. is the family clown—distracting with his antics, but really craving attention. Each has a story and wants something from this moment with family. “But”, says one grown-up child, “Nobody means what they say on Thanksgiving, Mom. You know that. That’s what the day is supposed to be all about, right? Torture.” Torture and stuffed turkey. But the film also shows the comfort found in families, and does so with humor, warmth, and sharp observation.
Pieces of April
This sense of the possibilities of the holiday gathering—and the inevitable disappointments—is wonderfully characterized in Pieces of April (2003), a small independent film that is both funny and acerbic. April Burns (Katie Holmes) and her boy-friend are preparing to host the family Thanksgiving in their tiny New York apartment. The stove breaks, all is confusion, and they desperately look for a way to cook the turkey. Meanwhile, her family is driving there from Pennsylvania. Her mother, Joy, voices the family dysfunctions: “This way, instead of April showing up with some new piercing or some ugly new tattoo and, God forbid, staying overnight, this way, we get to show up, experience the disaster that is her life, smile through it, and before you know it, we're on our way back home.” And “I don't know why I'm so hard on you Beth, when you've always been the daughter of my dreams. We're almost the same person, except I don't have your weight problems and you're making the same mistakes I did and I wish you would make your own.” Usually films built around Thanksgiving show a family at war, and then bring them to some reconciliation. Nothing much changes in Pieces of April, but the film’s insights into human behavior feel genuine and well-earned.
What’s Cooking (2000) is another independent film with real heart. It introduces us to four families, Afro-American, Vietnamese, Latino, and Jewish. They each gather separately to eat turkey together, but their cultural differences are less important than what they have in common: A desire to be part of an American tradition, and the generation gap. Their stories are told with humor and warmth and this is a film you don’t want to end.
Hannah and Her Sisters
Thanksgiving provides both a sense of family tradition and a marker in time for Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The film begins and ends with a Thanksgiving meal. In the two years between, we see the sisters’ relationships with husbands and boyfriends shift, as their own family roles become more defined. This is one of Allen’s best films—it’s funny and wise. While Mickey, Allen’s character, is preoccupied with a dread of death, Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her family are trying to figure out how to live. The film is romantic and, in the end, Allen lets his characters all find love—even Mickey. It’s a wonderful movie, and maybe the best one to watch as a new Thanksgiving tradition.
There will always be turkey on Thanksgiving. And stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, candied yams, cranberry sauce, and that gooey thing that your Aunt Gertrude makes every year, and which no one actually likes. But perhaps a new tradition is called for: watching movies set at the Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving? They regularly feature the real-life balance that the holiday highlights. We love our family, while at the same time they are often a major source of tension or unresolved anxiety. But we could never do without them, and the secular holiday of the Thanksgiving meal, the most American of all holidays since it belongs to no religion or single ethnic group, is a time when families are brought (or sometimes thrown) together.