Not So Thankful for These Holiday Movies

The Vicious Kind crew heading home for an extremely uncomfortable Thanksgiving
The Vicious Kind, directed by Lee Toland Kriegar, opens in a diner. For a few uncomfortable moments we watch our protagonist, Caleb (Adam Scott) nearly weep to himself. This is the first of many almost-sobbing scenes. Throughout the film we get sort-of-explained chin wiggling, lips shaking and red eyeing. The first line Caleb utters – almost into the camera – is, “You know they’re all whores, right?” And so the tone is set for this dysfunctional family/Thanksgiving film.
Thanksgiving should be a great holiday for the center of good ol’ American realist drama. But, it can draw directors that want to explore the more obnoxious family dynamics over a colonialist turkey carcass. The holiday functions as a device that can bring together characters who would otherwise not associate with each other and force them to interact against the not-so-distracting backdrop of one of the least commercialized holidays of the season.
The Vicious Kind, in particular, focuses on Caleb, who I think we are supposed to sympathize with. It appears that way since we follow his story, and perspective. There are moments where it appears he softens. And it is his story that is most resolved at the end of the film. So, I think we are supposed to have some degree of compassion for him. The problem is that he is misogynistic, abusive, jealous, misanthropic and many more words that are only associated with detestable characters. He has a paternalistic agenda to “protect” his younger brother, Peter (Alex Frost), from women. Caleb does not approve of Peter’s new girlfriend, Emma (Brittany Snow), making many snide and overt comments to suggest that she is fickle and promiscuous. Caleb makes these claims without much evidence beyond Peter telling him that Emma had cheated on her previous boyfriend. (We all know that the relational and sexual decisions women make as 19-year-olds define their character overall.)
Emma is a flat character who awkwardly shrugs off inappropriate comments from her boyfriend’s father (J.K. Simmons) and pushes back against Caleb’s aggressive advances. She is generally polite to everyone, but obviously uncomfortable. Caleb calls her a “whore” in the grocery store. He tries to kiss her. He makes awful comments in every in-between moment. But then, after she and Peter makes an unsuccessful go at sex, Emma rushes out of the house to meet with Caleb who has been lurking outside the house. Then they get to banging in Caleb’s old bedroom. There isn’t much explanation for this. There is no reason we should believe Emma would be attracted to Caleb since he has only been out rightly horrible to her – save for a few creepy moments where he confesses attraction. When she insinuates she had been a virgin, Caleb rushes out of the room chiding her with, “Peter’s in love with you!”
How’s that for reinforcing the virgin-whore dichotomy?
The tone of The Vicious Kind brings to mind heavy-handed movies that appear to parody themselves in their portrayal of poor men being devastated by the wiles of women. See: The Room. Caleb all but says, “You’re tearing me apart!” When in fact, he is the dominating tool that needs a more demanding character arc. Emma leaves the situation distraught. Caleb gets to reconnect with his father. Caleb can continue to be a misogynist in this setting – he is rewarded at the end by a suggested reparation with his father. Emma, on the other hand, is loaded down with guilt and self-loathing.
Pieces of April is another film with unlikable characters trying to celebrate a family holiday. While it features a female lead, April (Katie Holmes), it doesn’t represent gender much better than The Vicious Kind.
In Pieces of April, April (Katie Holmes), plays with turkeys
April is trying to host Thanksgiving for her family. Her mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), is dying of cancer and she is working on making at least one good family memory. But, her oven is broken. And, she has a contemptuous relationship with her mother. She seeks help from her neighbors – using their ovens. We also follow her family as they drive her direction. Mostly, the traveling scenes are just interactions between Joy and family members. She’s acidic and cruel. Watching April cook and interact is also painful – she’s oblivious and self-absorbed.
Don’t worry though. There are some really rational and considerate male characters. April’s boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke) is thoughtful and intelligent. He pushes (sometimes literally) April through the process of making dinner. Joy’s husband, Jim (Oliver Platt), is the literal and emotional driver of the family.
See April and Joy cannot reconcile their disdain of each other without the paternal help of the men in their life. They are both immature and obnoxious in their own ways. Joy regularly storms off – implicitly demanding to be chased. At one time she leaves the car and sticks out her thumb with the intention of heading back home. April pouts on the stairs, blows balloons, huffs and is incompetent in the kitchen. We watch her try to mash uncooked potatoes in a too-long scene.
Thankfully, in Pieces of April we don’t see the intense and near-violent anti-woman sentiment that is in The Vicious Kind, but we are still stuck with infantile female characters and the subtle assertion that they are incapable without a man to lead them through their own problems.
While it will be good to get past the Thanksgiving flicks this season, that unfortunately means that corporate and faith-fetishizing Christmas films are next.