Now that Netflix is back up after its deeply unfortunate Christmas outage, there’s a lot of discussion of underrated holiday movies floating around the Twittersphere, and a consensus seems to be emerging around Gremlins. And because no on else has said it, I want to offer a few words in praise of the 2005 Christmas dramedy The Family Stone.
The easiest way to characterize the emotional tone of the movie is to say that it’s the perfect film for people who loved the sad, true parts of Love, Actually more than the dancing prime minister or the Portugese lessons. But more precisely, it’s a holiday story about what happens when you get what you thought want, and find out that it isn’t really what you were looking for at all. And that’s probably why it’s not more popular. This is not a story about a renewal of faith on a single night in Bedford Falls, or six weeks that lead everyone to marvelous realizations. It’s about a holiday visit where people confront the work they have to do to actually become happier people, and reconcile themselves to the insurmountable nature of certain obstacles, like a bad recurrence of breast cancer—and it’s often uncomfortable.
Sarah Jessica Parker is Meredith, a stiff, if successful, woman, who accompanies her boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney) home for the holidays. Her style is a terrible match for his (sometimes self-congratulatory, even snidely) liberal family, and they for her. Little conflicts arise over things like Everett’s mother Sybil’s (Diane Keaton) decision to put Everett and Meredith in the same bedroom, though Meredith’s been raised to think it’s impolite for a unmarried couple to share a bed on a visit, or the intrusion of politics into a dinner-time conversation. Over the course of the weekend, Meredith becomes convinced both that she does not want to marry Everett and that he is planning to propose to her: the scene in which the events that lead her to that conclusion is genuinely painful. Sometimes the happiest ending is for two people not to end up together, a situation that’s often shunted aside in American movies though the road to that point is rich with drama, and it’s both difficult and fascinating to watch The Family Stone get there.
And while it can be a prickly movie, The Family Stone can also be a tender one. It’s one of the few movies I can think of to treat a woman, like Sybil, who has had a double mastectomy, as if she’s still a sexual, sensual being. Rachel McAdams, as Everett’s sharp-tongued sister April, is very good as someone who tells herself she’s defending her family, but in reality, is at least partially motivated by her intense dislike for Meredith. And Claire Danes, who starred in Shopgirl earlier that year, does fine work as Meredith’s sister, who both loves Meredith and finds herself drawn to Everett’s family’s more relaxed style.
Most Christmas or holiday movies let us look at these events as what we wish they were, a time when all our hopes and dreams are fulfilled, all our wounds bound up by the momentum and balm of the season. The Family Stone is about Christmas as it really is, a time when we make mistakes, hurt each other, and try to make amends, in part because we’re all trying so hard to make everything go right.