“Of course it’s about Mom.”
The Family Stone is one of those rare, perceptive holiday movies with the ability to gift us merriment, frustration, as well as a great deal of unspoken sorrow, and it earnestly wraps these emotions up with yesterday’s morning paper. Even the packaging somehow manages to tell a story here. This a good, honest, believable film with a pleasant meanstreak to boot, and the movie seems to still resonate with audiences because what transpires on-screen is such a dramatized and relatable version of what strange events happen around the Winter Solstice. As a beautiful love letter to the ties that bind, The Family Stone stays true to the spirit of Christmas, emphasizing universal acceptance over the folly of falsely jolly decorations, all while unfolding as a more heartwarming and updated version of Home for the Holidays. I’d go so far as to call it a modern holiday classic.
The film eventually finds its way to Sybil (Diane Keaton). She’s seated alone, looking at the family tree, sitting so close she could smell, touch, even hear the drop of pine needles. There’s a sadness to her pensive and pooling eyes, as if she’s recalling past joys and preparing to pen one last holiday journal entry. However, the quiet is quite brief, as her children with the professorial Kelly (Craig T. Nelson) slowly funnel in one by one (they’re all adults, but no matter their age, does a parent ever not first see their child as a child? Perhaps I’ll learn someday). You get the sense that the Stone family Christmas will no longer be the same after this celebration, that there’s an undercurrent of sadness masked by all of the madness.
First through the door is Thad (Tyrone Giordano). He’s deaf, gay, and his partner is the African-American man Patrick (Brian White). In a lesser film these two would feel like broad stereotypes, but this is not such a picture, and they’re vessels through which the story explores the uncomfortable conversations so often held at family gatherings. Then there’s Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser), waiting for her husband to finally arrive and the only visitor with a child of her own. Amy (Rachel McAdams) is the youngest, pulling up in her old beater with a full laundry basket. The cool, calm, and most likely of the bunch to be literally stoned is Ben (Luke Wilson), a kinda sorta documentary film editor who’s perpetually relaxed. Last but not least is the eldest Everett (Dermot Mulroney). Everett was the golden boy: standout athlete, honor roll, the guy that girls swooned over. He’s changed though, and because the film so effortlessly defines each character, we can tell this man is not being himself. And that’s before his hopeful fiancée Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) meets the family.
Meredith is out of her element with this tight-knit clan. The Stone’s are loose, liberal, progressive thinkers. She’s more conservative, closeted, sporting stilettos while Everett dons a tie. She has her work cut out for her, as does Everett if he’s to get the heirloom engagement ring Sybil promised him years back. The family almost seems to act like a host fighting off Meredith, as if she were a virus challenging their way of life, setting her up for failure until they recognize the gravity of their hypocrisy. It’s hard to be born into this family, even tougher to force your way in, but that’s also true to how so many close families are. With the film’s best scenes taking place within the picture perfect abode – including a stern dinner standoff, a game of charades gone awry, a breakfast disaster, and an overwhelmingly powerful gift giving exchange – The Family Stone congregates and builds itself in the communal spaces where both hardships and laughs commonly coexist; where standard conversation can become a holy ground for reconciliation and union.
There’s a lot to love about Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone. It builds carefully, thoughtfully, all while playing favorites (we hardly learn anything about Susannah, and Amy’s reduced to the mean sister role). And the movie nearly collapses in on itself by branching out too far, introducing us to Meredith’s lovely – and more comforming – sister Julie (Claire Danes). Everett gets cold feet, blindly falls for Julie, all while Ben and Meredith form a closer, more unique bond. How is it possible to like a picture where the people can be so unpredictable, temperamental, and unrealistically attuned to the proper beat of their hearts? I’d guess that it’s because the story is so eclectic, so vibrant, so damn authentic. We see bits and pieces of our loved ones in each character. We get to fill the nooks and the crannies with well-earned affection, awe, and an admiration for its humanist, sensitive eye. And with plenty of belly laughs and a few bouts fighting against ugly tears, you leave feeling like a member of The Family Stone when the credits roll. Not many movies can claim such a feat.
“You just couldn’t look at it without crying.”
Rating: 4 out of 5