“Thanksgiving movies” have arguably the trickiest of all the U.S. holiday plot lines to master
Thanksgiving movies lack the splash of gift-giving excitement, magical elves, heavenly visits, finger-snapping music, romantic twists, historical or patriotic victories, or epic lives lived in service of a higher cause. Thanksgiving, under idyllic circumstances, is a well-cooked meal with beautiful presentation. We surround it with eclectic traditions dutifully performed and avoid arguments. We root for our favorite football teams emerging victorious. At some point, we indulge in a tryptophan-induced nap with the gentle sounds of family laughter in the background.
Filmmakers have fun critiquing this Rockwellian scenario. Honest, dimly-lit portrayals of family dysfunction, cooking mishaps, and misfortune-laden travel culminating in a moment of peace, gratitude, and belonging among loveable characters abound. How often can a scriptwriter take that approach with all of us still buying in that there is a good story to be told? Often. Can I have gravy with that?
What are Thanksgiving movies?
Interestingly, there are also many movies labeled as “Thanksgiving” that have nothing to do with Thanksgiving. And yet, as my teenage daughter said, “Yeah, but they feel Thanksgiving-y.” So, we are forced into a careful dissection of what it means for something to be Thanksgiving-y. Pass the stuffing. I am unashamed to tell you that this high-stakes discussion informed the choices ultimately selected.
The fortunate among us are part of a family, whether we are born in or create one along the way. We have our people that make the space for us to belong completely. We irritate them if we talk politics, or accidently imply they “looked tired. ” Maybe, we broke a wine glass in the French onion green bean casserole (yes, very specific example). Whatever the foible, they put up with us.
And we all want to see ourselves depicted in the world and celebrated in all of our disparate and yet collective humanity. We all want to belong and have that moment to appreciate it. Whether or not the moment of grateful belonging happens around a Thanksgiving table is less important in these stories. It just Thanksgiving-y when it happens.
These five movies appear repeatedly in the top ten or twenty Thanksgiving movie lists but also give us that Thanksgiving-y moment we are hoping to find.
5. The New World
Not a story about Thanksgiving. It is the story of the young indigenous woman we typically call Pocahontas. The ethereal strength and power of Q’orianka Kilcher’s performance overshadows Collin Farrell’s portrayal of John Smith, however it is really the cinematography that steals the movie. If you ever wanted a deeper sense of what the land in America was like in its natural and balanced state, this movie will give you an inkling.
4. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
This one is about Thanksgiving. Or more accurately, about the desperate measures we all take on the most highly-traveled holiday of the year. With a 1987 release date, this movie holds “classic” status. The stars of the movie, Steve Martin and John Candy, do not disappoint. If you are looking for lighthearted, you can’t go wrong.
3. Soul Food
This one is not about Thanksgiving, but it is about how a good meal brings people together. The story highlights the efforts families make to stay connected even through emotional slights and injuries. It also celebrates the wisdom of our elders and the unappreciated embodiment of stability they create for us in an ever-changing world. While caricaturing out-of-touch seniors is an easy laugh, Soul Food helps us remember our older-generation saviors. These individuals were separated from the day-to-day grind of raising us. They are the grands- and the greats- who sometimes gave us the most love and acceptance. Soul Food drives home how it is the middle-life stage where we most often bog down in our grievances. Ahmad, the young narrator of the movie fully appreciates the gift of Mama Jo, the family matriarch, and with endearing earnestness, reminds the rest of the adults to get over it.
2. What’s Cooking?
This movie is about not just one Thanksgiving but multiple Thanksgiving celebrations of four Los Angeles families. Thoughtfully directed by Gurinder Chadha and released in 2000, this movie builds in interesting tension and surprising moments while also celebrating cultural and racial diversity. Ultimately, it is a reminder of our shared human experience and the amazing ways our lives intertwine unexpectedly. Bonus: The parade of mouthwatering foods generates an appetite.
1. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
It’s iconic. I’m not touching it.
A Final Suggestion
Hunt For The Wilderpeople, directed by Taika Waititi and currently available on Netflix. It was released in 2016, and I respectfully submit it as an excellent addition to any “Best Thanksgiving Movies” repertoire. Set in New Zealand, Ricky Baker, an intrepid and rebellious, 13-year-old foster teen is taken in by warm-hearted Bella and stern Hec. Through a series of misunderstandings, Ricky and Hec end up the targets of a country-wide manhunt through the bush. If you aren’t great with accents, throw on some close captioning. This movie touches on every emotion and is full of unexpected twists. Ricky Baker is the Thanksgivingiest of characters with his unshakeable family loyalty and heartbreakingly hopeful wish to belong.
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.