When it comes to queer holiday movies, for the longest time The Family Stone was the best we ever had. One advantage of the streaming age is that it has led to the beginnings of a more inclusive cultural landscape, specifically around the holidays. Indeed, the release of queer-centric holiday romcoms like Happiest Season or Single All the Way can provide a much better mirror into the lives and experiences of queer people during celebrations of typically heteronormative holiday traditions. But while it’s easier to have a romantic comedy with queer lead characters released exclusively on a streaming platform, it’s still a rarity within the mainstream world of theatrical films. Before streaming was so mainstream, though, The Family Stone brought the experience of going home for the holidays as a queer family member to the big screen.
What Is ‘The Family Stone’ About?
Released in 2005, The Family Stone follows the eponymous Stone family, headed by Sybil (Diane Keaton) and Kelly (Craig T. Nelson), as each of their five grown children and their respective partners and families come home to celebrate the holidays. Susannah (Elisabeth Reaser) is married with a child and a second on the way. Ben (Luke Wilson) is a hippie-ish documentary filmmaker in Berkeley. Thad (Tyrone Giordano) is an architect preparing to adopt a child with his partner Patrick (Brian J. White), and Amy (Rachel McAdams) is a teacher. But we mustn’t forget golden-boy middle child, Everett (Dermot Mulroney), an NYC businessman who has returned home with the woman he intends to marry, Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker), to seek out his grandmother’s wedding ring that he was promised. There’s one small problem: Meredith’s more uptight, cold, and conservative demeanor immediately clashes with the warm, liberal antics of the Stone household, causing swift tension and pandemonium.
Watching ‘The Family Stone’ During the Holidays Became Deeply Personal
I was single digits when The Family Stone was first released and it was something I watched with my mother once every few years as I got older—but was never a film I became overly attached to. Flash forward to the year I turned 19, when I was an anxious college student trying to navigate adulthood for the first time. It’s commonplace for us to acknowledge that children mature and grow at different rates, but a concept we don’t readily consider or accept for young adults. In other words, I might have been 19, but I still felt very much like a child and did not feel at all equipped to handle the world that other adults were throwing at me. As if that time of life isn’t complicated and emotionally messy for just about everyone, it’s especially difficult when that time accompanies one’s coming-of-age as a queer person. Suffice to say that, by the end of that year, I was depressed, exhausted, and lonely even in the most crowded of rooms. Re-enter The Family Stone.
The holidays are a difficult time when you find yourself no longer a child but not yet a grown-up. Childhood traditions start to lose a bit of meaning and the illusion that other adults around you always had it together has most likely shattered. In my case, my beloved grandmother, my Nanny, passed away the year I turned 18, and Christmas never quite felt the same again. Everyone around me seemed fine to adapt and keep up the charade as if nothing had happened, but that didn’t work for me and only contributed to my impending young-adult depression. By the following year, nothing was working to get me out of the bell jar and into the holiday spirit—except watching The Family Stone over and over again.
‘The Family Stone’ Is Riddled with Queer Subtext
Although it might seem to be a given that the film possesses elements of queerness just by the fact that it features openly gay supporting characters, a rarity for a mainstream film with A-list actors in 2005, The Family Stone’s queerness goes much deeper than that. 17 years later, the film’s heart and tone still speak to something so integral to the queer experience, especially around the holidays. And ironically enough, barely any of that heart and tone even includes the actual gay characters.
There’s the uncomfortable experience of spending Christmas with your boyfriend’s large cliquey family for the first time, as Meredith does, which is hard enough without already knowing they’re going to dislike you for your icy exterior. There’s the realization that Meredith and Everett are only together because they’re both trying hard to be people they’re not. There’s Rachel McAdams who shines as the bitchy younger sister who only exists to stir the pot (a character that undoubtedly resonates the most with many gay men over the holidays, forced to participate in their family’s heterosexist traditions). There’s Luke Wilson as the brother who encourages Meredith to stop screwing the lid on so tight and to let her freak flag fly. And if the film wasn’t already rich enough with gay subtext, The Family Stone proudly uses Judy Garland’s original performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis, which contains the original lyrics that were infamously rewritten at the behest of Frank Sinatra who believed them to be too depressing.
But any appreciation of The Family Stone would be remiss without mentioning its own infamous scene when at Christmas Eve dinner Meredith attempts to engage prospective gay parents Thad and Patrick in a debate over nature vs. nurture after her sister Julie’s (Claire Danes) questions about race were met with smiles and acceptance. Things go embarrassingly awry when Sybil jokes that she desperately hoped all her sons would be gay, which prompts Meredith to reply that she would think any parent would want a normal child. The film’s most important moment comes after Meredith storms off, when Sybil throws a utensil to get the attention of her deaf son, telling him that she loves him and that he is more normal than any asshole sitting at that table.
Personality Conflicts and Secrets Come to a Head
You thought that’s where the cringing and second-hand embarrassment ended? Well, think again. As if that wasn’t a brutal enough Christmas Eve family dinner, next comes Christmas morning in the Stone household, where a hungover Meredith mistakenly believes herself to have slept with Ben. Meanwhile, Amy’s old flame Brad (Paul Schneider) appears at the house, having been personally invited there by an inebriated Meredith at a local bar the night before to rekindle his relationship with Amy. Everything comes to a head when Sybil relents and gives her mother’s wedding ring as promised to Everett, and Meredith—expecting a proposal was coming—impatiently declares in front of the entire living room, “No, I will not marry you!” The kicker is that Everett didn’t even ask, and Meredith finally has the breakdown we’ve all been waiting for that culminates in Parker’s immaculate and teary delivery of the line, “Isn’t there anybody that loves me?”
Whether Ben and Meredith actually slept together (they didn’t) turns out to be irrelevant, because as he soon points out to his brother in an altercation that concludes with the collapse of the kitchen table holding the evening’s turkey, “You don’t love her, man.” What makes the climax of The Family Stone so compelling, and by extension so riddled with queer subtext, is that Everett and Meredith are both trying to be people they’re not. Even before the morning’s pandemonium broke out, Sybil makes Everett promise to stop trying to be so perfect all the time. And as Ben teaches Meredith, there’s value in releasing ourselves from the obligation of who we’ve always thought ourselves to be. Maybe there’s a more secure and less anxious version of each other that exists beyond the facade we cling to in a desperate attempt to be loved.
‘The Family Stone’ Portrays a Flawed but Loveable Modern Family
The Stones are deeply flawed, as is any family, but what makes them so compelling and loveable—especially to queer viewers—is their ability to still love each other wholly and unconditionally despite their flaws. It’s evident from the moment Ben arrives home when Sybil informs him, “No smoking pot in the house, I mean it this time,” followed by a smile and a hug. Liberal and left-wing as they may be, the Stones teach their audience each and every time that the most powerful thing we can do with our lives is to put aside greed and expectation in order to follow love and desire. The film is somewhat dated in that it barely uses its actual queer characters in order to showcase this message, and it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow by 2022 standards as we see the gay brother watch from the car as Everett is the one to leave behind one version of life for another. (That is, Claire Danes over Sarah Jessica Parker.) But The Family Stone nonetheless accomplishes its mission of displaying a 21st-century family in all its messy, inclusive glory. (Oh yes, did I mention that Diane Keaton is dying and this is her last Christmas with the family? Grab the freaking tissues.)
Watching The Family Stone on a loop that year and every year since has allowed me to imagine that other, happier versions of life exist outside the one I might be experiencing. That maybe new and exciting traditions lied in the Christmases ahead that would replace the childhood ones that had withered and died. That even though you may never stop missing the people you’ve lost at certain times of the year, you’re allowed to acknowledge and be kind to those wounds. That everybody is figuring everything out for themselves day by day, hoping for the moment where things feel like they make sense. And most importantly, that life is far too short to not be pursuing the things and the people that make us happy. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.