“The Family Stone” is a Personal Christmas Favorite

Thomas Bezucha’s “The Family Stone” is that movie that takes from “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and in many ways feels like a tribute to that very film. It’s still about acceptance and coming to terms with growing up, in the end. Except rather than the central theme being acceptance of race, the subtext revolves around a liberal brood accepting a conservative opposite as one of their own. It’s a rich, touching, sometimes painful look at the highs and lows of family, challenging our own perceptions, and dealing with an impending loss. The question that lingers in “The Family Stone” is not whether the matriarch of their very tight knit middle class brood can survive breast cancer, but whether the family can survive losing her.

As played by Diane Keaton, Sybill is an over protective mother despite her liberal leanings, and she’s faced with the certainty of death by terminal cancer, and worries what will happen once she’s gone. Immediately we garner a sense of who the Stone family is, and how much they rely on one another, when we set down on the lived in quarters of the family, which will certainly become the central setting for much of what unfolds in the narrative.

Dad Kelly and mom Sybill live in their quaint house that they raised their five kids in. They are especially fond of them, and though they live vastly different lives, they tend to share their Bohemian lifestyle that Kelly and Sybill instilled in every one of them. They may not agree with how they live their personal lives, but they’re happy in that they raised them all to be true to themselves.

What makes this Christmas especially important, is that mom Sybill, as played by Diane Keaton, has terminal cancer and is not expected to make it in through to the new year. So, for what they all learn might be her final Christmas, they have to welcome eldest son Everett’s new conservative and tightly wound fiancé Meredith in to their house. The situation is made even more difficult considering that Kelly and Sybill have chosen not to announce the news of her cancer until after Christmas, and the word is spreading among their brood’s hierarchy very quickly.

This becomes very tense among Sybill’s most loyal child, daughter Amy, as played beautifully by Rachel McAddams, who emulates her mother to the tee, and will likely take the news worse than any of her brothers and sisters. One of the best aspects of “The Family Stone” is that everyone but Amy eventually learns about Sybill’s disease, and has to face that she’s going to die. The movie never shows us Amy learning about her mother, but we do get a sense that she’s catching on in the finale when Meredith gives the family the framed picture of Sybill.

Most of the film revolves around Sybill and Kelly trying to ready their children for the worst, and hoping to carve out a future for them to ensure that they can better themselves and acquire personal happiness. This is brought to attention during the climactic dinner scene, where Meredith seems almost shocked at Sybill’s playful admission that she hoped all of her sons would be gay. Despite everyone’s efforts to loosen the tension and help Meredith save face, she seems to dwell on the challenges Kelly and Sybill’s deaf and gay son Thad has faced and will likely continuing encountering, now that he and his African American partner Patrick are planning to adopt a child.

It’s not so much Meredith’s sheer ignorance and clinging to her beliefs that bothers the family, but the notion that Sybill simply won’t be around to protect Thad when he’s inevitably faced with ignorance. Meredith isn’t a bad person so much as she is, like the Stones, a person set in her ways and practicing the rituals she’s learned throughout her life. Mid-way when her sister Julie (Claire Danes) is brought into help her, she’s insistent that Meredith is a good person, even when she manages to upset the parents.

Despite the unusual casting, “The Family Stone” is about this odd clan that mesh together so well. The cast and their performances are flawless as they mix with incredible chemistry as everyone gets their chance to shine including Amy Addams, Dermot Mulroney, Luke Wilson, and Tyrone Giordano, respectively. They even mimic sibling antics, and perform their own inner circle rituals like speaking while signing (for Thad’s sake), and taking group pictures at every single occasion no matter how trivial. Despite the general affable behavior of the Stone clan, you can sense they’ve been through the wringer and rely on one another in spite of their great distances. It’s their bond that makes them strong, yet genuinely impossible for anyone new to be accepted.

This is made clear where Patrick makes it known that, like Meredith, Amy didn’t quite accept him at first, prompting Amy declare that she loves him. Thad snickers with “That took years!” Most of Sybill’s work is spent trying to reach her son Everett who’s lost touch with his attempts to seek fulfillment in order to seek stability with married life and non-stop work. This somehow gives him the notion that a new wife can replace the eventual loss of Sybill, and he’s generally stone faced throughout his struggles to integrate Meredith in to his family. It’s a very mad scurry for Sybill to complete her work with her children before she dies, and many of them need more guidance, which frightens her more than death.

Craig T. Nelson’s performance is especially powerful (and a stand out among a brilliant cast), depicting a well worn patriarch facing the rest of his life without his true love. “The Family Stone” admittedly dips in quality when director Thomas Bezucha tries to liven up the emotional turmoil with lame slapstick in the finale, but that doesn’t mar what’s a very emotional and touching movie about family. There’s no greater challenge in life than accepting that someone we love is going to die and nothing we can do will keep them with us just a little longer. “The Family Stone” touches on that brutal turmoil with immense humanity, attesting to the power of family and how they can help us weather the storm.

Originally published on Pop Optiq; has been extended and altered.