Every kid in the world has, at one point in time, either wanted to run away from home, or openly courted fantasies of their family disappearing. Or maybe both. It’s easy enough to see why: siblings are universally annoying, parents never really understand, and extended relatives have a funny way of combining the twin drawbacks of being close enough to demand one’s attention but distant enough to make their presence an intrusive burden. Or so the cliche goes, anyway. But once upon a time, all of these tropes (and more) came together in a movie that has about as much depth as a greeting card and as much gravity as a cartoon, but somehow produced something that wasn’t just a runaway hit for the ages, and wasn’t just a trip into some kid’s fantasy adventure. It was an unlikely story about what it really means to hate your family just enough to really miss them once they’re gone. That movie? Home Alone.
Poor Kevin McAllister. His extended family is taking a big group trip to Paris for Christmas, and they’re all gathered at Kevin’s house before the trip begins. Even though Kevin lives in a pretty giant place (his Dad clearly does rather well for himself), there are still so many relatives staying over that he is pushed entirely to the margins by his bullying big brother, his disdainful cousins, his indifferent aunts and uncles and his totally distracted parents. After suffering one trespass too many from his family, Kevin angrily wishes that he never sees them again, and unexpectedly, he gets his wish…kind of. A freak power outage forces the family to nearly miss their flight to France the next morning, and in all of the hubbub of racing to the airport, they manage to leave Kevin behind. Not knowing why he’s home alone, Kevin enjoys his newfound freedom but realizes that he’s up against some pretty scary problems—namely, the menacing glare from his creepy neighbor (rumored to be a serial killer), and a pending home invasion from two crooks who are hitting every empty house in the neighborhood. If Kevin’s gonna make it through Christmas, he’ll have to fortify his home, repel the bad guys and prove to everyone—even if there is no one there to see it—that he really can make it on his own.
This movie is a stealth John Hughes movie that deals not with the pains of adolescence but the indignity of prepubescence, when you are everyone’s small fry, old enough to want some agency and young enough to have none. Movies don’t often tread this ground, mainly because it’s almost impossible to find writers, directors and child actors skilled enough to make it work. But we get the magic combination in Home Alone, and are given a rare glimpse into a world that every kid has dreamed of: being able to run around making noise, jumping on the beds, having ice cream for dinner, watching whatever you want on TV, not having to wait for the bathroom…the works. Watching Kevin bomb around his big, empty house is awfully fun, as he employs a kind of innocent ingenuity that enables him to get by without any money or adult to vouch for him. It’s all awesome. That is, until we remember why he’s even doing it at all.
Kevin’s family is kind of awful. Sure, the circumstances that result in Kevin’s abandonment are possible only in the movies, but before all of that, we see a bunch of really inconsiderate and selfish folks stepping all over a little kid. When things come to a head during a particularly chaotic pizza dinner, Kevin’s uncle loudly calls him a jerk in front of the whole family and nobody—not even his parents—steps in to contest it. In a lot of families, that moment would have resulted in somebody throwing hands with that quick-tempered uncle of his. But not with the McAllisters. No, here, they send Kevin to the attic to sit out the rest of the night in exile. The attic! So who could blame Kevin for wishing them away?
When the main plot kicks in, and we see Kevin stand off a pair of bumbling crooks with a series of Rube Goldberg-like traps and pitfalls, we know it’s all just the fun we need to stop from thinking about how horrible it really would be to be a little kid abandoned during the Christmas holiday. Even in a house that luxurious, being forgotten brings a kind of poverty no riches can counteract. Good thing we can distract ourselves with some of the most outlandish violence visited upon bad guys since the silent era. Sure, most of Kevin’s traps would permanently maim or kill people, but why stop to think about that when we could be having fun watch some guy get branded with a laundry iron, scorched on the head by a blowtorch, fall down multiple flights of stairs or hit in the face by a swinging paint can? Seriously if ever there was a movie that was worth watching just for the last 20 minutes alone, it’s this one.
But the moment of truth isn’t Kevin’s giddy one-man stand. It’s earlier, when he encounters his scary neighbor Old Man Marley and realizes he’s not scary at all, just a kind old-timer with a very sad story to tell. When Kevin hears it, he offers Marley some advice only an innocent kid would think to give, and it underscores how much Kevin doesn’t really want his family to vanish. He just wants them to notice when he is gone. And when he gets that, he also gets a view of what becomes of his next-door neighbor, and sees that yeah, one’s family really is the most important thing in the world. We only ever really get one of them. If they drive us crazy, it’s only because we love them. And in their way, they love us, too.