The Girl Next Door
Let Us Give Thanks for Katie Holmes and Her Two Essential Thanksgiving Movies
By Carrie Rickey
Katie Holmes is celebrated for many things: her silky chestnut mane, her emerald eyes, her rosebud mouth, and that uniquely wholesome sultriness that Americans hold dear in their girls next door.
Sadly, Holmes’s signature screen work as Thanksgiving’s harvest queen is consistently overlooked, even though she personifies two holiday archetypes, the all-American girl that every boy wants and the family member that no one wants to sit next to. Isn’t it time that she get recognition for her roles in two essential and unfortunately underseen Turkey Day films?
The Ice Storm (1997, her screen debut) and Pieces of April (2003) are steeped in the alienation and cockeyed gratitude that this singular American holiday evokes. These are not amber-lit traditional idylls, but they’re crucial additions to the Turkey Day holiday canon.
Watch the trailer for The Ice Storm:
Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is set in the wintry Connecticut ‘burbs in 1973, as (a) the generation gap widens into a chasm; (b) sex substitutes for emotional connection; and (c) drugs make such connection unlikely.
Illustrating (a) is possibly the most joyless Thanksgiving meal in cinema. Elena and Ben Hood (Joan Allen and Kevin Kline) sit with children Wendy (Christina Ricci) and Paul (Tobey Maguire) in a glassed-in dining nook where their frosty interactions turn the piping-hot food lukewarm. When called upon to offer a prayer for the holiday, Wendy snaps, “Dear Lord, thank you for this Thanksgiving holiday. And for all the material possessions that we have and enjoy. And for letting us white people kill all the Indians and steal their tribal lands. And stuff ourselves like pigs, even though children in Asia are being napalmed.”
Illustrating (b) and (c), Paul longs to lose his virginity with his prep-school pal Libbets (Holmes). Seventeen years later, I can still remember the gasp from my male colleagues when the fresh-faced Holmes appeared onscreen wearing a peasant blouse embroidered in red and emanating the only heat in this chilly movie. Awkward Paul plies her with beer and pot. Then Francis (David Krumholtz), his sexually experienced frenemy, cuts in. Paul tries to confess his love to Libbets, and she says she loves him like a brother before falling into a drug-and-booze-induced swoon, leaving Paul to ponder what might have been as he sprints to catch his train home.
An unintentional effect of The Ice Storm is that, by contrast, most other Thanksgivings are positively cheery and engaged. Writer-director Peter Hedges’s Pieces of April is an entirely different can of cranberry sauce. Holmes is the quirky title character, a henna-haired, pierced and tattooed New York City punkette who has mastered the lowered-chin, upraised-eyes look perfected by Lauren Bacall and Princess Diana. Although April looks like a fawn, she is the despair of her suburban family.
She invites her parents (jolly Oliver Platt and the sublime Patricia Clarkson) and siblings (Alison Pill and John Gallagher Jr.) to Thanksgiving at her funky place in the Bowery. April has never prepared the holiday meal before. It is possible that she has never cooked before. And, by the way, she doesn’t have a working oven — and her mother is suffering from terminal breast cancer.
Watch the trailer for Pieces of April:
In a parallel story line, April’s family drives to Manhattan with many misgivings about their oppositional daughter on what might be Mom’s last Thanksgiving. Mom uses her impending death as the basis of the film’s bountiful sweet-and-savory humor. “We must give thought,” she begins, as spouse and children hold their collective breath, “to how we’re going to hide the food we don’t eat.”
Meanwhile, April’s boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), goes out on a Thanksgiving errand while April looks for an oven to borrow. Maybe her family won’t have to ditch their ill-cooked food, after all. Separately and together, Clarkson and Holmes show a bond unbreakable by death or cold turkey. In its eccentric way, the movie updates Norman Rockwell for the millennium: The turkey isn’t golden, and there are tears as well as smiles.
Where The Ice Storm reinforces Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families, Pieces of April amends that line to suggest that goofball families are goofy in their own way. The fourth Thursday of November is when Americans give thanks for their blessings. Aren’t we all thankful for the likes of Katie Holmes, whose inner fire warms us? She is the secret queen of the Thanksgiving movie, and for this we give our gratitude.