Thanksgiving is nothing if not entirely polarizing for a lot of people. For some, it is a holiday of togetherness and thankfulness — spending time with those you love and enjoying food and drink to round out the year. For others, it’s a time where the past seems to come back all over again in full force, reminding us why we needed to leave home in the first place. As much as Thanksgiving can be a holiday of coming together, it’s become something of a dark joke for many that family bonding over the holidays is more accurately bonding through trauma and too much knowing rather than through affection and warmth.
In that way, there are few movies that capture the awkward and deeply flawed vignette of a Thanksgiving with family in the way that director Mark Waters’ 1997 film The House of Yes does. Through JFK assassination role-play, incest, and Geneviève Bujold’s stiff upper lip — to say nothing of Freddie Prinze Jr.’s ability to woo a still-trying-so-hard Tori Spelling while wearing a sweater vest — it’s an unfortunate truth that this darkly comedic off-broadway-play-turned-film hits the nail on the head for many with far more accuracy than any feel-good Hallmark special could ever dream.
The House of Yes is nothing if not a many-layered treat. Setting the tone by first introducing the main players of the story — fraternal twins Marty and Jackie — as the adult Jackie narrates over home videos of their childhood shot by Marty, the audience watches a precocious and energetic tween dressed in the iconic pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat as she gives a tour of their luxurious Virginia home, imitating the famed black and white White House tour of the First Lady herself. (Footage of the real Jackie’s White House tour is intertwined with the home movie.)
Marty catches Jackie showing off the empty study of their father, whose death occurred the same day as JFK’s assassination in 1963 — something she quickly glazes over in a whirl of mania, throwing herself into a playful frenzy through the rest of the house. The chaos finally ends as the movie cuts to its present framing: Northern Virginia, 1983, on the eve of Thanksgiving, where Jackie, whose time capsule wardrobe and borderline personality disorder arrive with dizzying charm courtesy of Parker Posey’s performance, is taping up the windows in preparation for the incoming hurricane that is expected to hit in the midst of the family’s holiday meal.
More than the fear of shattered windows, though, Jackie’s family — including her mother, played by somehow always underrated Bujold, and younger brother Anthony, brought to life by the aforementioned Freddie Prinze Jr. — seem more concerned about the possibility of Jackie herself shattering. With dinner still to be made and the news still being broken to Jackie (clad in the perfect little black dress, perfectly painted red lips, a sleek bob a lá Jackie Onassis circa 1969, and visible bandaging on her wrist) that brother Marty will be returning home for dinner accompanied this year by “a friend”, the tension is palpable.
As Jackie slowly, gleefully, unravels with the insecurity over whether Marty’s friend is just a friend, cracks in her facade of Kennedy perfection become increasingly clear; insisting that she has to find a brush before Marty arrives and not comb because combs make your hair flat and she wants it to gleam. Although her mother and Anthony seem to be happy to indulge her fantasies and desperate needs, the time runs short as a blow-open door and crash of rain offer the much-awaited object of Jackie’s mania, Marty, who she literally throws herself onto with affection… and his fiancee Lesly, played by a surprisingly understated Tori Spelling — a presence and introduction that elicits nothing from Jackie except crazed laughter and the announcement that she must still find her much-needed hairbrush.
The movie’s true discomfort begins as Mother grills Lesly in a lackluster voice over how long she’s known Marty and how well they know each other before launching into anecdotes about Marty and Jackie’s relationship; stating how Jackie and Marty’s relationship is the one they were each made for, with Jackie having “come out of the womb holding Marty’s penis in her hand,” she states nonchalantly, “It’s a medical journal somewhere.” All of this happens under the euphemistic description of “girl talk.”
It’s here, as the family seeks to deal with the very presence of Lesly, an outsider, that the message of the movie becomes clear and all-too-relatable in a fucked up way for those celebrating with dysfunctional families. As the electricity goes out and the storm rages around the prim Washington DC home, Jackie, after emerging from her anxiety-induced primping session, makes it clear (in the most subtle way Jackie is capable of) that Lesly is an unwanted presence in their house, offering not-so-quiet hints at the true nature of why her relationship to Marty is so special, telling her that Marty’s last girlfriend had been… well, just perfect for him.
“Why didn’t he marry her,” Lesly asks, curiously. “He couldn’t,” Jackie-O coyly responds. “It was a family thing.”
While Lesly merely admires from a humble, naive standpoint this strange, overly-formal, and utterly fucked up family, Marty slowly slips back into the routine of being around those who expect the worst of him. He arrives back home with a stiff upper lip and a sense of duty to attend for the sake of family, but quickly begins to loosen up, falling back into habits and structured banter — not unlike those on old talk shows or tv sketch comedies — that are clearly ingrained in his psyche and furthermore, ingrained into the relationship with his family.
As Lesly, dejected and feeling like a fish out water, returns to her room, things stir back up between Jackie and Marty, with Jackie convincing him to once again play their childhood game. Jackie in her Chanel suit and pillbox hat points a gun full of blanks at Marty waving to the imaginary crowds from his limousine seat of the couch. She fires the gun, running over to him to catch his head and mourn him; drawing his mouth to hers and kissing him until they succumb to their incestuous desires. (This, at least, is arguably better than their previous attempt to recreate the historic shooting, which ended with Marty actually being shot.)
Upon finding out about Marty’s past and relationship with Jackie by way of Anthony — who is, notably, disappointed that this is another family thing he’s been “left out of” as the younger non-twin sibling — Lesly confronts her fiancee the next morning, with the realization of what he’s done written all over his face with regret and grief as she talks. (“I saw you both. The thing with the gun.”) He pulls her close, begging her to tell him about their regular routine at home on a Sunday morning — sleeping in, casual coffee in a cafe, making love in the afternoon, and reading the paper — and begging her to bring him back to the new normal he’s grown to love. They agree to leave together, but are met with the alternative plans of a bloodthirsty Jackie, who has no plans of letting her John leave… not until he’s slumped over and she’s mourning him in her hands.
It’s hard to imagine this being a movie that can spark any sort of familiar feeling for the average person going home for Thanksgiving dinner. I assume that, for the most part, an unwell sibling desperate to fuck you is not super high on the list of concerns for anyone, even those whose family is even the most shocking version of dysfunctional. Nonetheless, the connection to familial dysfunction rings true in more ways than one for anyone familiar with the reality.
It’s established right from the start that the JFK assassination is a vital part of the story of the siblings. To Jackie, and in some ways to the rest of the family whose complacence has done nothing but feed the cycle, the JFK assassination represents the conjoined feelings of togetherness and hurt — of her father’s death and the connective tissue that is grief; a date burned into not only the minds of millions of Americans, but to Jackie and Marty, a date that signifies their shared trauma of losing their father.
The love they share, however unsavory or uncomfortable to viewers, is one born of reenacting their trauma in the only way they know how — with the grace of Jackie Onassis as she holds the head of her bleeding, dead husband — and something that bonds them together. While this experience, her coping mechanisms, may have held together while she and Marty existed inside the bubble of their insular, unstable family unit, people change as they age and experience new things. As Marty left the house for college, he was also, unknowingly, leaving Jackie trapped in her own personal time capsule — always stuck on the day that their father died; that she was wearing her Chanel suit covered in ketchup and imitation brains made from macaroni pasta.
Marty, upon leaving and finding a life and a routine with Lesly, breaks the cycle and repetition of his trauma, finding something new and something good to help him better understand his pain and how he relates to the world, allowing him to move on from that day in 1963. Jackie, however, remains stuck in the ritual of recreating the day JFK was shot, and the day she lost her father; the day her innocence was lost to violence and loss. This compulsion is one that does not go unseen to many families who have experienced bonded trauma — staying within their insular units in hopes of recreating comfort in their shared experiences over a yearly dinner where history can come alive just one more time.
More than anything else, The House of Yes offers a bleak but relatable experience for Thanksgiving with family simply from the standpoint that the gathering of family is, inherently, a roundtable of bonded trauma. For every bad experience shared with a sibling, every parent who didn’t listen when someone told them they were hurt or scared, or every event that left a scar on the people whose everyday we have had to share in adolescence, there is a glue holding us on to one another. Much like Marty’s ease for slipping back into old habits and forgotten but never unfamiliar speech patterns around the people with whom he shares his pain, so many of us swallow our freedoms, unlearned habits, and earned peace in favor of a meal around those who may have caused or contributed to our need for those things in the first place. Every year, for a week, a day, or an afternoon, so many of us offer ourselves up as a time capsule of turmoil and conflict; hoping quietly over dinner that we can leave and go back to what we have unlearned from our familial sharing.
The takeaway from this movie — whether you’re like me and sickly watching it as a Thanksgiving classic every year, or anytime just because it’s so very good — is schadenfreude. Seemingly a microcosm of our worst Thanksgiving family experiences, enabling, and inability to articulate our coping needs around childhood issues, The House of Yes is also something of a salve: a reminder that for all the good that there is to be had during the holidays, it’s also okay to remember why it’s okay (if not good, necessary) to have left. Why becoming someone new — someone beyond the places our bonded persons would have us stay — is always going to be the right choice.
So, this Thanksgiving, it’s clear what to do: Have some turkey. Eat some stuffing. And more than anything, let’s try to keep our heads from blowing off.