There’s nothing quite like being home for the holidays, eating heaping portions of home-cooked food and dodging nosy relatives. Unfortunately, I’m spending my first-ever Thanksgiving away from my family this year as I study in England, leaving me to search for alternate ways to celebrate the distinctly American holiday. Some Thanksgiving traditions are impossible to replicate outside of the United States (canned pumpkin puree is surprisingly hard to come by in British supermarkets), and in the few past weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I began to feel a bit like Bing Crosby’s character Jim Hardy in Holiday Inn, sarcastic listening to his own recording of “I’ve Got Plenty To Be Thankful For” while eating his turkey alone. It can be easy to feel lonely and cynical when you are unable to spend Thanksgiving with others (or choose not to), but I have found another way to get my fill of festive treats: holiday movies. I’m extra thankful for movies this year to give me that warm feeling of Thanksgiving: if I can’t go to my actual home, then at least I can go home to the familiar comfort of the movies. So for everyone else who’s spending Thanksgiving away from home or family—or everyone whose family dysfunction necessitates a little escape into the world of the screen—look no further than some Thanksgiving-related films to feast your eyes on.
The crowd-pleasing first course has to be A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973). The half-hour animated special is a classic, and Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang make the perfect company. Charlie Brown’s dilemma of Peppermint Patty continuing to invite guests to his house for Thanksgiving dinner, despite the fact he already has plans to be at his grandmother’s, perfectly reflects the chaotic energy that often accompanies the holiday. A plan emerges for Charlie Brown to make a Thanksgiving dinner of his own—a feast of buttered toast and popcorn delightfully orchestrated by Snoopy—which I always thought looked like an absolutely delicious assortment (though maybe this just reflects my own lack of culinary skills or a refined palette). Any meal shared with friends like the Peanuts is bound to be a treat.
Another antidote to homesickness is John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), which revolves around a desperate desire to get home for Thanksgiving. If I can’t go home myself, I can at least watch these characters try. Neal Page (Steve Martin) is an uptight businessman trying to back to Chicago from his meeting in New York, while Del Griffith (John Candy) is a chatterbox shower ring salesman. Of course, Neal immediately takes a dislike to Del. And of course, they get stuck together, after a blizzard diverts their plane, mechanical failures halt their train, and a series of other antics ensue that make it seem increasingly unlikely they’ll make it back in time for Thanksgiving dinner (or make it back with their sanity). Even though I’m not from the Chicago area or living in the 1980s, there is a hominess I feel whenever I watch a John Hughes film; they are comfortable, cozy, familiar, like slipping on a favorite sweater. The Thanksgiving dinner at the end of the film that newfound friends Neal and Del share is enough to warm even the coldest and deadest of hearts.
The next course of films will satisfy a different taste, centering on the dysfunctional families that can make anyone actually feel grateful to escape the family drama this year. Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) begins and ends with Thanksgiving dinners. The celebration of the holiday acts as a framing device to bring everyone together, and the film offers a veritable smorgasbord of hidden desires, covert affairs, and betrayals of marital and sibling trust. In Christopher Guest’s mockumentary For Your Consideration (2006), Thanksgiving once again becomes a conflict zone. The plot revolves around the filming of the fictional 1940s period drama Home for Purim, which eventually morphs into Home for Thanksgiving. The woefully self-absorbed cast and crew, from character actor Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara) to bizarre director Jay Berman (Christopher Guest), are driven mad by the faint suggestion of Oscar buzz. Thankfully their misery is our joy, and the film’s hilarious melodrama and its battle of egos serve as a close-enough substitute to Thanksgiving dinners that can often feel like theatrical spectacles themselves.
Addams Family Values (1993) offers another take on the performativity of Thanksgiving via a garishly cheesy summer camp pageant depicting “The First Thanksgiving,” complete with dancing turkeys singing “eat me.” The pageant is put on by extremely white, wealthy, and WASP-y kids, and presents a romanticized (and racist) version of The First Thanksgiving. But Wednesday Addams, playing Pocahontas, goes off-script. She confronts the self-righteous pilgrims, tells them they have taken the land rightfully belonging to the Native Americans, and then unleashes destruction. While Wednesday is, of course, white, wealthy, and privileged herself, she at least takes some sort of a stance against the rosy Thanksgiving narrative of white supremacy and is the perfect surrogate for that one relative at every family table who wants to talk politics.
If after all those films your hunger for festivity is still unsatiated, as mine was, then there are plenty of non-American or non-Thanksgiving films to provide a hearty serving of deliciousness. In Babette’s Feast, a French housekeeper cooks a feast for a pious nineteenth-century Danish community, sparing no expense as she makes an elaborate, sumptuous and sensual meal. Her feast is an act of generosity and a communal celebration right in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Whenever I just have a craving for some good food onscreen, I return to Ratatouille again and again for Remy’s culinary delights, any Harry Potter movie for its sumptuous feasts, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the opening credits sequence of pouring chocolate that never fails to make my mouth water.
Movies might not be a perfect substitute for food and family, but at least they won’t give you indigestion or ask you over and over about your personal life. With such a bountiful assortment of films to feast upon, there’s plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.