Making the Grades
A few decades ago the holiday season featured movies about people facing poverty and despair. Today, the silver screen is usually dressed in dysfunctional families facing enormous stress as they try to eat one dinner together. Such is the situation in this film, where the annual gathering of the Stones will make your worst nightmare before Christmas seem like a sugarplum fairy.
Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton), a controlling yet dedicated mother, and her husband Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), are putting the finishing touches on the festive celebration, with the help of their daughter Amy (Rachel McAdams), who is the only Stone sibling still at home. Joining the trio for the special day is their gay, hearing impaired son Thad (Tyrone Giordano) and his companion Patrick (Brian White); their married, pregnant, and peacemaking daughter Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) with her young daughter Elizabeth (Savannah Stehlin); and their laid back single son, Ben (Luke Wilson). The last to pull into the driveway is their oldest son, the suit-and-tie wearing Everett (Dermot Mulroney), and his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker)--the latter being the catalyst who will get the movie truly rolling.
With the family gathered around the window to watch Meredith's every move, we quickly learn that both Sybil and Amy truly hate the young woman and fear an engagement is about to be announced. That will lead to the next dreaded question--Everett asking his mom if he can have his grandmother's ring that was pledged to him years earlier. The potential future mother-in-law is discovering the promise was much easier to make before she had the prospect of a bride she disapproves of.
After meeting Meredith, it is evident why she is difficult to love at first sight. Her already forthright demeanor is only enhanced by her nervous anxiety over dealing with people she knows dislike her. Requesting sleeping accommodations separate from Everett's (she is uncomfortable sharing a bed with him at his parents' home), she puts an already angry Amy on the couch. Her attempt to apologize the next morning only makes things worse. Caught between a rock-hearted host and a hard bed, Meredith moves to a nearby inn and asks her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to give up her holiday plans and hop on a bus to come and provide emotional support.
However, one more person in an already too-full house can't prevent the "big" meltdown that occurs over Christmas Eve dinner when Meredith begins questioning Thad about his gender preference. Developing into an impassioned discussion about the influence of genetics and environment on sexual orientation, the meal ends with a heated argument and an extra helping of hurt feelings.
Putting this shattered family back together is going to take a miracle, and fortunately the script provides a few--along with filling in some missing pieces with a couple of other storylines.
If you're looking for a charming Christmas comedy, don't expect to find it here. This movie deals with some very mature topics, mostly of a sexual nature. Although it addresses many of these issues with an insight and maturity rarely found in this genre, parents should be aware this Santa's sack contains discussion starters on everything from homosexual couples adopting children to what a mastectomy looks like.
After the dishes are washed and the wrapping paper settles, The Family Stone's powerful and sincere performances provide some provoking food for thought. Yet, if you've ever had to spend Christmas with a house full of relatives--some of whom you love and others you are trying to tolerate--this movie may hit a little too close to home for the holidays.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Family Stone.
How did Meredith’s nervous anxiety about spending time with the Stones make her appear even more abrasive? What, if anything, might Sybil and Amy have done to ease the tension?
During dinner, Meredith questions Thad about his sexual orientation. Do you think she was honestly looking for an opinion, or merely wanting a way of voicing her own? What does Sybil’s remarks reveal about how she has raised her sons? Do you think there is anything in a person’s “environment” which may factor into their sexual orientation, or does it have any affect at all?
The Stones are very accepting of Thad’s lifestyle, yet they are intolerant of Meredith. Is this a double standard?