Thanksgiving film canon is quite small. Part of that is understandable due to the fact that in a film landscape that has become increasingly more international the American holiday (apologies to the Canadian Thanksgiving on October 14th) would get pushed aside. Plus, Christmas is always around the corner, and all of the marketing in being ‘a Christmas film’ that affords a pretty simple campaign and a built-in audience of such films is right there for studios to fall back on. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (the central cultural touchstone of Thanksgiving in visual media), while designed to celebrate the holiday, always ends on a note of Christmas with the Santa Claus float closing the parade–itself the inciting plot point of the two versions of Miracle on 34th Street, both Christmas films. Thanksgiving is even hemorrhaging its own calling card to Christmas. It is truly the middle-child between Halloween and Christmas.
Getting to the canon of Thanksgiving films, there’s Alice’s Restaurant, Arthur Penn’s film treatment of Arlo Guthrie’s counter-culture folk album of the same name in 1969. The film has become something of a cultural time capsule of American folk and hippies but deeming it among best cinema of that decade or a highlight of what Arthur Penn (Night Moves, Little Big Man, and Bonnie and Clyde) could offer as a film director would be a hard sell. But it is a Thanksgiving film and for that it is canonized and carries some cultural import once a year. You still would be better off listening to the album while cooking and basting the turkey, though.
John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) presents Steve Martin’s pilgrimage to reach his family in time for Thanksgiving dinner as a manic farce of a road film, but Thanksgiving is rendered the destination, not the journey. Make no mistake, the delirium and horror of holiday travel has never been better realized than in that film. Perhaps the smartest use of Thanksgiving in film is Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), which has three Thanksgivings serving as intervals in the life stations of its ensemble, who each go through various transformations in love, faith, and profession.
Posited as a non-denominational holiday combining national identity and family, Thanksgiving’s role in the culture can feel more humble compared to the days and weeks of non-stop Christmas over-saturation. But to say Thanksgiving is without impurity of commercialization and corporate co-option would be dishonest. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s satire Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) is about a lot of things and tackles a lot of topics about America, to various degrees of success. One of those successes is in recreation, a dramatized version of the real-life event used in the book, which is the 2004 Thanksgiving Game Halftime Show in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium. It had Destiny’s Child perform a spectacular music set surrounded by returning Iraq War Veterans who marched around them with intense precision. The scene was an intersection of God, country, football, militarism, popular culture, capitalism, and extra-large American hubris, that if you saw it the way it was intended was also at an accelerated frame rate of 120 frames per second. The film was a tough sell due to that high frame-rate and it became a box-office bomb in addition to a critical failure, but Billy Lynn felt like it was uniquely revealing the unspoken cynical undercurrent that surrounds the holiday and its traditions, increasingly encroached by commercial interests that feed into self-interest. How many Thanksgiving dinners are going to end with people going straight to a Black Friday queue out the mall? Billy Lynn may not be your classic idea of Thanksgiving canon, but it has returned to the mind along with the holiday and will surely be thought of whenever the Cowboys are front and center in their heavily pixelated mausoleum football stadium, along with whoever is doing their halftime act.
There are also Thanksgiving films that bring a level of ironic distance and subversion against the idealized imagery of the holiday, such as the white nuclear family having a blissful feast at their large dining room table in Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom from Want,” the artist’s tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech. That painting has been parodied so many times over that it can bring instant smirking given how many shorthands and riffs exist, from MAD Magazine covers to the poster art of Albert Brooks’ film Real Life to Art Spiegelman’s politically charged art in The New Yorker to, most recently, poster art for Deadpool 2. It should not be shocking that such irony extends towards the creation of ThanksKilling horror films series, giving a mean and scary twist to the holiday. One can also just find there to be something too perverse and gauche with Thanksgiving in relation to America’s colonialist roots and feel most seen in Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) in The Addams Family sequel Addams Family Values (1993). While costumed as Pocahontas, Wednesday decries the treatment of Native Americans by the pilgrims and succeeding generations of white settlers in the United States. She proceeds to lead a coup against her sinisterly cheerful, WASP-y summer camp during a Thanksgiving play and the victorious sequence is hilarious. (The film itself was released on November 19th, 1993, right on time to be watched on the holiday in theaters.)
It can be difficult being earnest about the holiday’s iconography and some of the most notable Thanksgiving films bring moods of dark humor or an air of manic futility–sometimes both. Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), an adaptation of the Rick Moody novel of the same name, at its core is about the deteriorating nuclear family malaise of the 1970s Watergate era, where the hormonal teenagers want to be more like the adults and the adults wish to forego their responsibilities if for one night at a neighborhood key party. The moral fabric has been stained if not outright damaged; everybody is secretive because everybody is untrustworthy. The undercurrent is no more evident than the Thanksgiving dinner of the Hood family. Family patriarch Ben (Kevin Kline) allows Wendy (Christina Ricci) to say grace and it escalates into Wendy making a political statement–as though Moody and screenwriter James Schamus took cues from Addams Family Values–about the treatment of Native Americans and the then-hot topic of the bombing of Cambodia. So much of everyone’s reaction to Wendy at that dinner table and Wendy herself are a microcosm of the Hoods themselves and their central family dynamic. Thanksgiving is where people can be who they are, going up against the next person across from them doing the same, which can lead to volatile shifts between absolute silence and arguments.
The ultimate–but not necessarily the best–Thanksgiving movie in that regard, would be Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995). Single mom Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) gets down on her luck right as she is pulled back into her native Baltimore with her family’s inner-circle and all of its dysfunction on Thanksgiving, clearly the product of years of living under the same roof with so many contrasting personalities. Mishaps, misunderstandings, and hijinks ensue. The lesson, of course, is that, in the end, these insane people in Claudia’s life are still her family and love her. The Larsons are your typical family with a few modern twists (Robert Downey Jr.’s Tommy and Claudia being divorced) which does make their story and film accessible for audiences as opposed to overly awkward, cringe-worthy sendups to the holiday experience. That in turn brings to mind the American indies in this 21st century from Krisha (2015) to Pieces of April (2003) to Tadpole (2002), which have used Thanksgiving as a device in tying the central drama and conflict to characters being at a large family social gathering with varying success rates. Thanksgiving can be about characters coming as they are, but how much baggage can that setting and those other characters handle, never mind the audience?
For most films, what can be the aesthetic of Thanksgiving can also be simply seen as the season of autumn. But there is an opportunity in making a personal connection with the holiday rather than reverse engineering the holiday into a narrative. One such notable example is in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017). Lady Bird is structured as a memory poem of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) senior year of high school. While the film begins with a Joan Didion quote that contrasts the perceptions of outsiders about California hedonism versus Sacramento Christmases, due to the McPherson family’s financial straits, their Christmas is incredibly low-key. The holiday that gains importance in Lady Bird’s narrative and the central conflict in the film is Thanksgiving. Lady Bird accepts going to her boyfriend Danny’s grandparents home for Thanksgiving in the affluent Sacramento neighborhood the Fabulous Forties, full of revival Tudor and Colonial homes. When Danny (Lucas Hedges) meets her family in the McPherson home, he unintentionally spills what Lady Bird presents to others about her family, that she comes from “the wrong side of the tracks.” Lady Bird’s mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) suppresses her wince when hearing this from Danny but she later does throw that characterization of their family back at Lady Bird in an argument much later on, holding onto that insult that hits on a lot of class shame. Lady Bird’s time in the Fabulous Forties home is a warm gathering where she socializes with people of a different stripe from her and Gerwig chooses to not dig in too deeply in showing the McPherson’s Thanksgiving, never contrasting visually as the viewer can already envision the imbalance and not need further evidence to get the point.
Lady Bird continues her Thanksgiving with a night out with friends and her mother catching her, Danny, and her best friend Julie high on pot with a major case of the munchies once home. It’s a light, non-confrontational moment, but once her friends leave, Lady Bird talks to her brother’s live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) who is outside smoking a clove. Shelly discloses to Lady Bird that she was missed at her Thanksgiving dinner and vouches for Marion, noting that after being kicked out of her house due to her parents rejecting her life choices that Shelly was welcomed into Marion’s house. “I admire her,” she softly responds to Lady Bird stating her mother hates her. Lady Bird is silent for a brief moment. It hits her that she is lucky.
Still, within Gerwig’s career in screenwriting she also has given Thanksgiving treatment to “the alternative family.” Toward the end of Mistress America (2015), that Gerwig co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, Tracy (Lola Kirke) searches for Brooke (played by Gerwig), her would-be sister that due to their parents breaking up off-screen–and not going through with their Thanksgiving wedding–has them no longer in the same orbit. But it would be too dishonest for the two of them to just return to being strangers. Tracy is left to herself on Thanksgiving and reconnects with Brooke after a pretty intense fallout. They make their peace over a meal before Brooke heads out west, having enrolled in college. The last shot of the film is them together, the audience looking at them through a restaurant window, laughing and reminiscing. This is their “Friendsgiving” and it feels earned. The significance of Thanksgiving in Greta Gerwig’s films often stems from her female characters being drawn to the holiday’s offerings as some break, an escape from the chaos and disappointments of everyday life, putting aside any lingering issues they are all holding to sit down, relax, and eat.
Perhaps what can be done in punching up the Thanksgiving film canon is viewing the holiday exactly in these terms that Gerwig succeeds in. Having the characters falling into the holiday as a fabric of their lives, rather than the day itself being the backbone of the film in structure. It is a day in the life, but for many it is also a day of significance and an abundance of feelings, pressures, and deeply personal histories and memories rooted in family and friends. Maybe that is why Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films, which check off all of those boxes, have been becoming a Thanksgiving tradition on AMC. I suppose that can be acceptable. Thanksgiving film canon needs all the help it can get.