The Movies Tell Us: How to Survive a Dysfunctional Family Get-Together

By  · Published on September 18th, 2014

Touchstone Pictures

Whether you’re home for the holidays or sitting shiva after the loss of a loved one, family get-togethers can be rough. Never mind if yours is a “dysfunctional” clan or not. Aren’t they all, anyway? It may be relative, but we all have our family dramas and difficult times when reunited with our most direct relatives. If not, you’re a lucky one, except when it comes to trying to relate to a lot of movies. The rest of us like to see stuff like This Is Where I Leave You for both the identification and the exaggeration, the former allowing us to laugh at ourselves, the latter hopefully leading to an understanding that everything could be worse.

Movies about family get-togethers can also be a source of learning. We already relate to the basic experiences, but how much do we connect with the specifics of how the characters survive those events? A bunch of these movies feature complete parallels as far archetypes and plot and jokes, so it would seem they’d be universal. And a lot of the times everyone turns out just fine in the end. So, for your next get-together, perhaps this fall for Thanksgiving or next summer for a road trip or full-on reunion, consider the following steps, each one applicable in the movies and, of course, therefore in real life.

Revisit Your Old Favorite Spot — You had a favorite spot in your house or neighborhood or town growing up, didn’t you? If you must reluctantly pay a visit to the place of your childhood, the best you can do is reconnect with the things and places that made you feel good in your youth. Either for simple nostalgia or total psychological comfort, the past and our memories of better times can help us cope with the difficulties of the present. Perhaps, like Margot Tennenbaum of The Royal Tenenbaums that place is the rooftop of your home, where you used to go and smoke. Bonus if you find some of those old, now-stale cigarettes in your secret hiding spot. Or, maybe it’s the arms of a former lover, like Eli Cash.

Bond With Your Favorite Family Member — Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a big proponent for the concept of the extended family, noting that with a clan of a certain size, there has to be at least one person for each member to have a special connection with. While not part of a huge family in RT, Margot Tennenbaum is again a fine example of this lesson. She always had a great bond with her brother, Richie, to the point where it becomes somewhat incestuous but never mind that (or the similar relationship in TV’s Arrested Development and the very incestuous siblings in The House of Yes). Sometimes that bond will come about psychically and unknowingly, as in the case of the big family reunion of the Skywalkers during the rescue mission in Star Wars. When you have a dad like Darth Vader, whether you know it or not, it’s fortuitous to rescue your twin sister from his clutches, whether you know who she is or not. Another prime example is with Claudia and Tommy Larson in Home for the Holidays. Their relationship isolates sister Cynthia, but she’s a homophobic jerk so she deserves to be the odd sibling out.

Fall For a Local — In pretty much any movie where a main character goes home, without a significant other along for the ride, he or she will fall in love. That’s one of the biggest cliches in the book. And I’ve never known it to happen to anyone in real life, so take it for the misleading convention that it is. For guys, it’s usually a manic pixie dream girl waiting for them, a la Garden State and Elizabethtown. For the gals, it might be someone with something in common, a la the fellow AA member in Rachel Getting Married, or a guy your parents want you to meet. The latter is a possibility for Claudia Larson in Home for the Holidays, but she’s given something even better, a gift of a handsome new surprisingly straight boyfriend from her gay brother. Similarly, as in The Family Stone, you may wind up falling for the sibling of your significant other, and vice versa, in order to straighten things out in the uncomfortably mismatched house.

Properly Warn Your Significant Other — Canceling out the last lesson for some people (though not always) is when you already have a significant other, be it a new fiancee or a spouse or lesbian partner said to be just a friend. This is probably the most realistic situation on this list, as millions have been through the experience of their family and relationships with close relatives causing strife for their romantic relationships. Such guests need to be warned ahead of time about the truth of these difficult family members, and there’s a good chance the invited partner will relate and understand. If not, maybe it’s not meant to be, but one of the best ways to survive a get-together is to make sure the other person will survive it, too. Lying is a bad idea anyway, and it’s a wrongheaded move in some of the oldest stories of these kinds, such as in You Can’t Take It With You. But then, how do you tell your fiancee that you have a sexual relationship with your twin sister, if it is The House of Yes you most identify with? One good way to deal with an awkward family is to bring along someone who isn’t technically your significant other but whom will agree to pretend to be, like in Buffalo ’66. And then maybe she’ll be a local you fall for in the process.

Find Your Own Food — This last item could be the most important as far as life survival. Getting frustrated with family members may lead to a heart attack, sure, but ingesting the wrong thing or not eating at all is a more likely detrimental to your health and maybe existence. In just about any holiday meal scene, something happens to the turkey. Maybe it’s too dry like in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or winds up in someone’s lap and the floor like in Home for the Holidays. Worse, though, is having your meal spiked with drugs by a jealous sibling you’ve just met, like in Flirting With Disaster, or urinated on by your aunt’s dog, a la National Lampoon’s Vacation – the latter also showing us that your poor cousins might not have great offerings for family cookouts. Just be sneaky and polite and go out for pizza or something later.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.