Home Alone and American Virtues
Why does Home Alone make a good Christmas movie? At first glance, it’s a comedic fable about a boy who outwits two burglars in order to defend his home. At the end of it all, he learns to appreciate his family. Under this impression one could argue that the movie could be set during the summer. However, buried underneath the hijinks (which could take place in either summer or winter) is a contemplative heart to the film that I think makes it more than suitable for the Christmas season. Home Alone holds more than a cheesy ‘appreciate your family’ morality tale: it offers a nuanced meditation on the virtues of individualism and inter-generational community, under the spiritual auspices of the holiday season.
Let’s look at Kevin’s character arc: he begins the story as a rude and ungrateful child who wishes that his whole family would disappear; in a sense, they do. After a brief phase of Dionysian frenzy (eating junk and watching rubbish), he pulls himself together. He cleans himself and, by plundering his missing brother’s life savings, shops and provides for himself. He quickly civilizes himself independent of any outside impetus. When the bandits arrive and threaten his home, he stays to defend it. He uses his extreme intelligence, self-sufficiency, and ingenuity to transform his suburban house into a fortress. When the two bandits come to coerce him outside of the house, he shoots them through the dog door.
This, of course, is the most American virtue of all.
But what’s interesting is that this doesn’t work out for Kevin. In the end, despite his greater intelligence, he simply isn’t able to overcome the sheer strength and determination of two vindictive adults. How are the forces of evil kept at bay? Not through the return home of his parents, but through the intervention of an elderly neighbor.
Name another movie that centers itself emotionally on the relationship between a boy and an unrelated elderly man in his community. It’s really quite peculiar to the film. It’s part of what allows Home Alone to transcend out of the double bind of bland sentimentalism on the one hand and generic slapstick comedy on the other.
It is also telling that Kevin and the old man meet in a church. There, both of their mutual fears begin to be transformed: Kevin’s fear of the old man, and the old man’s fear of speaking to his own son. One could read Home Alone as suggesting that one of the most pressing problems in our society is the broken relationships between generations.
Kevin’s family returning home is almost superfluous in terms of the plot. Of course, it’s very important that he gets to see them and mend his relationship with them. But in terms of his survival, he was continuing to exist safely without them: not just because of his intelligence, but the community he formed with others not bound to him by blood.