News

How Home For the Holidays Saved My So-Called Teenage Life

Robert Downey Jr.'s charming and self-assured Uncle Tommy in this treasure of a Thanksgiving flick helped actor and director Ryan Spahn find peace in his teenage self.

by | November 23, 2020 | Comments

Home for the Holidays

(Photo by © Paramount)

Ryan Spahn is a New York City-based actor, writer, and director. His next feature film is Nora Highland, which was shot during the COVID-19 pandemic and explores the issue of casting straight actors as LGBTQ+ characters in the theater. Here he reflects on seminal Thanksgiving movie, Home for the Holidays.

TV series My So-Called Life ended prematurely on January 26, 1995, and my 14-year-old life ended as well. Full stop. I stalked the halls of my public high school, clutching the tattered ends of my flannel. I cowered in the shadows of the parking lot, inhaling Camel Lights like it was my damn job. I would never see the character of Angela Chase ever again. Ahhh! I was an outlier. She was my best friend. My happiness depended on her staying alive. What was I gonna do? 

Distraught beyond teenage comprehension, I buried myself in my Entertainment Weekly. What was my red-haired, Manic-Panic-dyed Angela Chase/Claire Danes going to be in next? I had to know. My life depended on it. The Spring issue of the magazine spoke of a new film she was starring in; it was hitting cinemas in the Fall. It was going to be PG-13. I would then be 15, which meant I could go alone. Booyah! 

Home for the Holidays

(Photo by © Paramount)

The blurb said something like, “Home for the Holidays is about a Thanksgiving gone awry.” Sweet! Coming from a broken home, family holidays were always these harrowing battlegrounds; a painful tightrope test of love, and – most importantly – loyalty. I was legit dying for this movie to open. I knew it would be my jam. 

Home for the Holidays came out nine months later, on November 3rd, 1995. The film was directed by Oscar winner Jodie Foster. In addition to starring Angela Chase, the movie also had Oscar winners Holly Hunter and Anne Bancroft in it. (I mention the Oscars because I was profoundly obsessed with the Academy Awards.) I hadn’t heard of anyone else in the cast.

Alone in the theater with a small popcorn and a rackety bag of Sour Patch Kids, my imagination was totally game-on. The lights dimmed. Here we go. Angela-Chase-as-Claire-Danes-as-Kitt-Larson was one of the first characters to arrive on screen. I gasped. My best friend was back. Gosh, I’d missed her. But then, something unexpected happened…

Home for the Holidays

(Photo by © Paramount)

Full disclosure: I was a budding gay boy. I just didn’t know it yet. You see, living in the suburbs of Detroit, I had never even met a gay person. There was a queer kid in My So-Called Life, but back in January, I wasn’t ready to see myself reflected in him. But now, it’s November – things changed. Enter the character of Tommy Larson, uncle to my beloved Angela Chase.

Tommy was gay and he was just… huh… he was just living his life. Walking around. Being gay. Being funny. Being even, like, a role model. And he was not dying of AIDS. But I thought all gay people died of AIDS – that’s what the movies had told me, right? This guy was totally alive, and – shut the front door – he was totally married. To a man. I didn’t even know that was a thing. My family certainly hadn’t brought that pearl up while hurling a Thanksgiving turkey across the dinner table. (Yes, that happened. In my real life. Not unlike what happened in the film.) 

Home for the Holidays

(Photo by © Paramount)

His marriage was actually a movie plot point that I should fill you in on: Uncle Tommy is played by scene-stealer Robert Downey Jr. An actor I’d never seen before. And his family isn’t totally on-board with his gayness, so he keeps his recent beachfront marriage on the down-low. Okay, so, after Thanksgiving dinner is done, after the tipsy Great Aunt Glady (Geraldine Chaplin) confesses her love for her brother-in-law (Charles Durning), after Uncle Tommy’s sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) is showered in turkey gizzards, the now profoundly upset Joanne decides to blast-out Uncle Tommy’s personal life: “You’re calling me a drama queen! Mr. Pervert! Let’s talk about secrets! May you and your husband live happily ever after, Mrs. Gordon!” 

I dropped my Sour Patch Kids. He was exposed – my worst nightmare. He had no armor. If that happened to me, I wouldn’t have the vocab to combat. But then, with effortless aplomb and profound confidence, Uncle Tommy shrugs off what would have shattered me: “Dessert looks pretty good,” he says with a wry smile. 

Home for the Holidays

(Photo by © Paramount)

He could give a f–k what his sister thought. What anyone thought. I realized then that my own happiness was a personal decision I could make. My family didn’t have control over it. I had assumed they had. Feverishly smoking my Camel Lights, I waited in the movie theater parking lot for mom to pick me up. I doused myself in my Drakkar Noir. I chomped on my Big Red gum. How was I gonna be happy like Uncle Tommy?

Mom arrived in her white minivan. We drove in silence. I was silent for days – at least, that’s how I remember it. How was I gonna be happy like Uncle Tommy? But then, one night, I bolted up in bed. I knew what I had to do. I had to leave. I had to get out. But how? I know! A boarding school! Interlochen Arts Academy is in my state. I secretly applied and I secretly got in. On a late submission. I raised the tuition money. By myself. Against unrelenting pushback from my family, I declared my departure.

Home for the Holidays

(Photo by © Paramount)

Upon arrival at Interlochen, I entered the boy’s dormitory. I took a deep breath. Then, I noticed a quiet sophomore named Conrad standing in front of the mailboxes. He was from Amman, Jordan. He was a drama major. He was cute. He became my first boyfriend. He became my first love. He became my gateway to being happy. Just like Uncle Tommy. 

It took me six years to finally come out to my family, which proved to be its own nightmare. To this day, I cling to Home for the Holidays annually. It’s my reminder that no family is perfect. We’re all just doing our best. As Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) so perfectly states, “We don’t have to like each other. We’re family.”  

As Thanksgiving rolls around, I look forward to my return to the Larsons. Because if it wasn’t for them, for Home for the Holidays, for Angela Chase, for the timing of Uncle Tommy in my life, I would’ve – quite literally – never survived high school. Full stop.


Home for the Holidays was released November 3, 1995.

Ryan Spahn’s new film, Nora Highland, is playing various festivals. You can check out the trailer here.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

Year in Review Extras Sundance TV BET Western romantic comedy zombies Animation Netflix Christmas movies Star Trek game of thrones BBC America TIFF renewed TV shows streaming finale unscripted Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt The Witch true crime social media Action halloween tv Schedule worst Syfy elevated horror Warner Bros. History Paramount Network Watching Series supernatural anthology Masterpiece OneApp Thanksgiving satire witnail black Epix Reality what to watch disaster Awards versus french New York Comic Con kids VOD joker Britbox Alien Lifetime 2018 Lifetime Christmas movies CBS All Access Star Wars mockumentary singing competition cancelled television Cannes Superheroe Arrowverse based on movie Food Network Mindy Kaling Cosplay political drama Disney Plus Holiday ABC Family aliens Spike National Geographic revenge Sundance Now chucky robots scary movies zombie X-Men Endgame Musical Rocky Adult Swim FX comedies Comic Book Crackle BAFTA cults MTV space independent Best and Worst The Purge Comedy Marathons comics Trophy Talk video on demand football Fox News italian Universal blaxploitation video Ellie Kemper Discovery Channel comiccon Sundance crime asian-american Cartoon Network spanish technology criterion SDCC 24 frames GoT Summer Reality Competition Super Bowl Toys President diversity fast and furious CMT deadpool Rom-Com spinoff nbcuniversal worst movies series BBC One crossover Marvel Studios San Diego Comic-Con rt archives cancelled TV shows Sony Pictures Box Office The CW indie Sci-Fi Country HBO Max reboot serial killer Family Film Spectrum Originals Tarantino hispanic Infographic latino Set visit Disney streaming service game show television best comic books halloween Paramount venice natural history Calendar screen actors guild Rocketman Captain marvel 99% romance 4/20 nfl Chernobyl adaptation First Reviews HBO Go 20th Century Fox TV Land Tomatazos Rock Baby Yoda CW Seed Sneak Peek Heroines rotten movies we love Acorn TV dceu science fiction WarnerMedia The Arrangement Hulu CNN japanese TNT YouTube ITV stand-up comedy indiana jones laika Starz DirecTV TLC Certified Fresh stoner quibi comic ghosts Television Academy obituary HBO slashers TCM Spring TV festivals DGA golden globes hollywood award winner Dark Horse Comics werewolf First Look crime thriller See It Skip It 2015 PlayStation Musicals VH1 rotten biography canceled TV shows 2020 documentaries Black History Month boxoffice Classic Film sports screenings anime cops GIFs Anna Paquin USA Network south america Creative Arts Emmys Funimation Walt Disney Pictures Apple TV Plus IFC Films TV canceled australia Trailer Turner classics mission: impossible DC streaming service nature tv talk Tumblr Hallmark sequel Red Carpet hist franchise archives Nat Geo Video Games Pet Sematary dark cancelled TV series IFC crime drama Vudu CBS Brie Larson Quiz Holidays 007 Kids & Family spanish language directors thriller Emmy Nominations TCA Winter 2020 parents MSNBC Amazon Prime Podcast Mudbound Binge Guide Song of Ice and Fire Shudder cinemax TCA 2017 DC Universe 72 Emmy Awards TV renewals sitcom children's TV Apple TV+ harry potter Columbia Pictures christmas movies critics dragons casting Pirates Academy Awards Christmas book RT21 Peacock Turner Classic Movies Crunchyroll teaser A&E NBC A24 Showtime Interview Awards Tour animated Election Disney Channel Photos docudrama fresh AMC The Walking Dead 21st Century Fox news ESPN toy story dc FXX adventure APB cooking spy thriller cars travel Logo E3 Pop Avengers emmy awards YA cats miniseries Marvel Television politics richard e. Grant Pop TV The Academy GLAAD transformers justice league die hard spain Television Critics Association remakes Countdown BET Awards Mary poppins binge Horror Ghostbusters Amazon discovery Teen a nightmare on elm street Nickelodeon Fall TV Disney+ Disney Plus Writers Guild of America ABC free movies Tubi E! Netflix Comedy Central Bravo dramedy Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Music cartoon Emmys Apple Hallmark Christmas movies PBS films SundanceTV Comics on TV 71st Emmy Awards Oscars USA RT History LGBT Nominations zero dark thirty Martial Arts Elton John Stephen King Fantasy FX on Hulu Trivia reviews toronto 2017 festival strong female leads period drama movie Winter TV scorecard Lucasfilm ratings movies Polls and Games YouTube Premium all-time stop motion superhero FOX ID Shondaland Hear Us Out theme song facebook foreign documentary Valentine's Day TBS police drama El Rey war Women's History Month Disney composers 45 vampires james bond psycho name the review green book boxing spider-man sag awards DC Comics BBC MCU Pride Month Esquire NYCC Superheroes TCA Amazon Studios medical drama Film Festival doctor who historical drama VICE Marvel sequels dogs Pixar talk show psychological thriller universal monsters twilight Black Mirror Travel Channel TCA Awards TruTV Premiere Dates PaleyFest Mary Tyler Moore Drama Biopics 2016 blockbuster Lionsgate child's play Mary Poppins Returns Ovation Opinion Fox Searchlight concert batman Grammys SXSW Character Guide American Society of Cinematographers jamie lee curtis WGN Mystery breaking bad 2019 Winners mutant Amazon Prime Video Freeform YouTube Red OWN cancelled LGBTQ