The Case for ‘The Family Stone’
There is one egregious absence from nearly every “Best Christmas Movie” list I’ve seen: The Family Stone (2005). It’s everything anyone would want in a Christmas movie—warm, funny, and entertaining—but there is a subtle core of sadness that never crosses into being maudlin. The Family Stone does what it needs to do to qualify as a holiday movie, but it then transforms into something much more profound and satisfying.
On the surface, The Family Stone is a typical “golden child comes back to their hometown and to their loving but kooky family with inappropriate significant other and hijinks ensue” plotline, á la Meet the Parents. Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) brings his high-strung, high-achieving girlfriend, Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) to meet his family with the intention of asking his mother, Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton) for her heirloom engagement ring so he can propose.
Meredith’s introduction to the Stone family is an utter disaster: she yells when she tries communicating with Everett’s deaf brother, Thad (Tyrone Giordano), even though he reads lips; during a game of charades, she unconsciously points to Thad’s husband Patrick (Brian J. White) when she is searching for the word “black”; and, trying to be helpful, she prepares a special Morton holiday dish with mushrooms, unaware that her intended fiancé is allergic to them. And, as the coup de grace, the more traditional Meredith attempts to discuss sexual politics with the decidedly bohemian Stones and steps directly onto a landmine, blowing up the cheer and goodwill of the Christmas Eve meal. She alienates herself entirely from everyone in the family.
Except Ben (Luke Wilson), Everett’s older brother. For some reason, Ben—the free spirit foil to Everett’s controlled, bottled up businessman—is smitten with Meredith. He is her only ally against Sybil and his sister Amy (Rachel McAdams), who is Meredith’s ultimate mean girl. And when Meredith begs her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come help reduce the tension, Julie’s presence does the exact opposite because Julie (literally and secretly) falls head over heels in love with Everett the moment he picks her up at the bus, and he with her. As does the rest of the Stone family, much to Meredith’s horror. Shakespearean misunderstandings and misadventures ensue, and—technically—in the end, it’s Happily Ever After.
Or is it? As the story progresses, we, and the rest of the family, learn that Sybil has what is likely terminal cancer. She was determined to keep it a secret from her family so they could have one, last, uncomplicated Christmas together, but one by one, they find out. Somehow, despite the heaviness of the topic, writer-director Thomas Bezucha handles it with enormous grace and delicacy. Sybil’s uncertain future fills his movie with depth, meaning, and longing that are entirely absent in other treacly Christmas movies. (I’m looking directly at you, Love Actually.) We genuinely feel the family’s love for their eccentric, strong, sometimes difficult matriarch, and the love returned to them by her. We admire her wish to handle her illness with dignity and privacy, and to have her wishes observed with respect.
There is a beautiful montage midway through the movie. It’s almost Christmas. Most of the Stone house is in bed or has fled the house to look for an errant Meredith or, in Meredith and Ben’s case, in search of distraction. Kelly Stone (Craig T. Nelson) kisses his pregnant eldest daughter, Susannah (Elizabeth Reaser) goodnight. Meet Me in St. Louis is muted on TV as she talks to her husband on the phone. Amy is sleeping peacefully on her lap. After her dad goes upstairs, Susannah unmutes the movie in time for Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which is one of the most beautiful, bittersweet songs and scenes in movie history. It’s full of yearning, sadness, love, hope, and an acknowledgement that nothing stays the same, as much as we wish it could.
Upstairs, Kelly puts his head on Sybil’s chest and they have a brief conversation about Everett marrying Meredith:
Sybil: “You know, honey, It’s not her. I feel sorry for her. I do. It’s just that he’s making this mistake. . . . And I won’t be here. I only want him to be happy.”
Kelly looks her deep in the eyes and says, “He’ll be fine. . . . We all will . . . no matter what. You’ll see.”
And then Sybil finally lets her brave and stoic façade crumble: “Kelly, Kelly, I’m scared.”
As the song swells, Susannah watches the TV and her eyes well up with tears, and we know without it having been said explicitly that she is aware of her mom’s fate. Patrick and Thad take a walk through a snow-covered, silent town. Lying in bed at the inn, Julie tries to read but is distracted, thinking about Everett. Everett looks at his engagement ring and tries to call Meredith, while Meredith and Ben are asleep in each other’s arms in his car. And Kelly and Sybil make love. She opens her blouse to reveal her mastectomy scar, and Kelly caresses it.
This isn’t usual Christmas Movie fare. And I fear I’m making it sound much more heavy-handed than it actually is. Bezucha directs all of this with the lightest hand possible and the fact that he pulls it off is a minor miracle. The Family Stone is neither a confection nor a leaden Christmas pudding. It’s a delicious, savory soufflé that needs to be baked at the perfect temperature and taken out of the oven at the exact time or it will fall flat. There are fewer tears and hugs than there are laughs and fun misadventures. It is clever, lighthearted, and human, above all. Even though The Family Stone came out in 2005, it feels timeless (save for all the flip phones).
The cast is perfection. They all, from starring parts to featured players, are at their best. For example, Elizabeth Reaser, who has a relatively small part (and what, in lesser hands, could be a thankless one as the “nice” sister), is subtle and warm and an absolute wonder. She makes me well up in tears just like she does every time I watch her watch Judy Garland in that pivotal scene, without her saying a word.
Bezucha has a delicate, tasteful, and compassionate touch. There are plenty of true laugh-out-loud slapstick moments in The Family Stone, but he also tackles sexual acceptance, non-religious spirituality, equality, love, and death head on. All wrapped up in a shiny red bow for Christmas.