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In the spirit of other dark comedies about dysfunctional families–movies such as “Home for the Holidays” or “The Royal Tenenbaums”–the latest Christmas flick, “The Family Stone,” is, on the surface anyway, a formulaic story about a young couple, Emmett and Meredith (played by Dermot Mulroney and Sarah Jessica Parker), who travel to New England to meet his parents for Christmas. Of course, Meredith is terribly nervous and naturally everything goes wrong, and the family doesn’t like their potential daughter-in-law one bit. But amidst some slapstick laughs, this movie surprises by adding several thoughtful layers to the plot. (Warning: this post contains a few minor spoilers!)

First I think it is worth noting that the movie incorporates a deaf son as one of the characters–the most natural, seamless and intelligent incorporation of someone with a disability in a movie that I can remember in a very long time. Why don’t we see that more often in film, as a life affirming but not maudlin reflection of that oh-so-popular word “diversity”?

Next, as far as romantic comedies go, I loved this story because it does not give the romance(s) in this movie the “Jerry Maguire” treatment. In fact, “The Family Stone” is about just the opposite. This movie points out that someone else can’t complete us or be our sole purpose in life. We have to look deeper inside ourselves to find wholeness.

But the biggest twist in the movie is when the audience discovers, along with certain members of the Stone family, that the mother (brilliantly played by Diane Keaton), Sybil, is trying to keep a dark secret from everyone. The secret suddenly explains a lot of this family’s caustic behavior. Again, this could have turned this movie into some sappy movie-of–the-week cliché, but it didn’t. It is only one more layer of story that leads up to what I saw as the most redemptive moment in the film. Meredith and Emmett’s irreverent brother Ben (played by Owen Wilson) snuggle together on a bed and softly sing over and over the words “repeat the sounding joy” from the carol “Joy to the World,” while downstairs Sybil Stone is marveling at the gently falling snow. The message to all of us at this–or any other–season is that joy can be found in the most difficult and unlikely times if we stop to listen to our spirits and embrace what is truly precious… and have a good laugh at ourselves and our frail humanity in the process.

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