Chris Columbus’s Home Alone was released in the UK on 7 December 1990, 30 years ago. Hardly the most obvious candidate for the title of ‘an American classic’, the John Hughes-scripted comedy has achieved a place in the canon of Christmas films, exerting a nostalgic power over audiences who first saw it as children, and gaining new fans each year.
Critics Michał Oleszczyk and Alex Ramon met in Łódź, Poland, to discuss the film’s personal importance to them, as well as its wider cultural significance, including its engagement with childhood fantasies and fears; its political and philosophical resonances; its reception in post-Communist Poland; and its status today.
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Alex Ramon: Somehow it’s 30 years since Home Alone’s release! What are your memories of seeing the film for the first time?
Michał Oleszczyk: I grew up in Poland and, in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so much western culture was unleashed upon us. There was a TV programme on which they’d show clips of current American films and I distinctly remember seeing a clip from Home Alone on the show: the moment when Kevin hits the burglars with the paint cans. It was such a strong image – funny and violent and mischievous, everything a child (I was 8 at the time) could want.
The movie only opened in Poland in 1992, so it was much later that I was able to see it. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time. The film was funny and moving and I went back to watch it again a few times. The screenings were packed on each occasion. It was fun from start to finish; pure joy. And, on a personal level, when I was that age many people in my family said that I looked like Macaulay Culkin. So, on the narcissistic side, I partly must have seen myself as this character. When did you first see the film and what were your impressions?
AR: It came out in December 1990 in the UK, when I was 10. I saw it with my mum, and obviously had a great time as well, because we returned to watch it again a couple of weeks later. I don’t have so vivid a recollection of that first screening though. What I do remember is getting the film on video and pretty much watching it on repeat in 1991.
MO: It was the first video I owned and I watched it many times too. I also got the soundtrack on CD and listened to it often. I think John Williams’s score contributes a lot to the movie – with its 2 registers: a Christmas carol element and then a layer of dread. And of course the score and song ‘Somewhere in My Memory’ got the film its only Oscar nominations.
AR: How else did your fandom express itself? I had the soundtrack too, and the novelisation, and started a scrapbook inspired by the film.
MO: By the time the sequel came out, I owned a Walkman with a record function. And, almost like what was happening on screen with Kevin’s fancy recorder, I snuck it into the cinema, and recorded the whole soundtrack to the film on an audio tape. I also did some aping of what Kevin does in the film, playing around with my father’s aftershave and stuff. Certainly the film affected my imagination very much.
AR: Why was that?
MO: I think it’s deeply connected to the fantasy of having the world as your playground. For Kevin this huge house becomes a space of freedom, a toy. The film taps into the fantasy of suddenly being free from parental control, without being cut off from the resources won by parental labour. In the second film, Kevin has his father’s credit card and NYC shops to invade, but here he has all those cupboards filled with sweets and goodies; it’s a treasure trove and the control is suddenly gone. There’s a very specific pleasure to being home alone: it’s cozy, you can watch what you want on TV, you can open forbidden drawers and discover stashed-away objects… So on that level the movie was purely about fulfilling a ‘What if….?’ fantasy for me. What did you connect to in the film?
AR: I think the depiction of a child’s resourcefulness appealed greatly. The film is very flattering to kids in that way, emphasising Kevin’s ability to survive and solve problems. But, more than that, it’s the fact that, by surviving, he’s going against those negative labels that have been attached to him by his family: that he’s “helpless,” “les incompetents”, etc. He proves that he’s none of those things, and that’s very appealing to a child who’s identifying with the character.
MO: Yes, the shot where the family members are all judging him for ruining the dinner is something that a younger child can definitely relate to. And so the film is almost like a vindication of the underappreciated.
AR: I responded to the movie’s ambivalence about family and one’s place within that, for sure. I appreciate the film’s fair-mindedness in this regard: Kevin can be naughty (solitude helps him to become self-reflective as he’s finally willing to admit: “I’ve been kind of a pain lately”), but his family also have their irritations… Families can indeed “suck,” as he says, but ultimately he misses them and wants them back. Still, he’s able to survive without them. Important lessons!
MO: Also quite conservative ones, and one could say that this cunning merger of libertarian anarchy and conservative values was John Hughes’s stock in trade at least since the time of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Rewatching Home Alone yesterday, I was also reminded of how scary the film is at times. It plays not only into the hopes and fantasies of being home alone but also into the deep fears of the abject repressed that lurks beneath the agreeable surface of domesticity. The empty house is both an invitation for play and also has potential danger lurking everywhere. The basement that Kevin fears, the burglars trying to gain entrance, the mocking furnace… Then there’s Roberts Blossom as the initially scary character of Old Man Marley and the brilliant use of the brother’s pet spider.
AR: Yes, as with the film’s take on family, there’s a double perspective to its presentation of the home as both sanctuary and danger that makes it surprisingly nuanced. Also, while we anticipate that Marley and the spider will be threats to Kevin, they actually both turn out to be saviours to him. In contrast, there’s Joe Pesci’s Harry pretending to be a trustworthy policeman in the first scene when in fact he’s the threat. So the film is very much playing with ideas of what – and who – we should and shouldn’t fear, and I love that subversive aspect of it. It encourages the young viewer to look more closely at people and situations, to see beyond reputation or appearance.
MO: One thing I didn’t consciously register as a 10-year-old was just what an opulent, wealthy home the film presents. I just immediately projected myself on to Kevin and felt that this was my world, though obviously I was growing up in very different circumstances. In the current climate of the 2020s it would be all but impossible to release or discuss this film without some reference to privilege in general, and white privilege in particular. Somehow I didn’t see Kevin as privileged, though of course he is.
AR: So true. For me too that social context represented a big disjuncture, but it wasn’t one I had difficulty overcoming. A lot gets said about ‘identification’ these days and it’s become politicised in a rather basic, literal-minded way, in my opinion. What’s lost, in emphasising all these barriers to involvement, is the idea of emotional identification and how that might cross over boundaries of class, race or gender. As you mentioned, Kevin looked like you, but he didn’t look like me, his social circumstances were different, and that wasn’t a problem. I could still relate. I feel strongly that the way we ‘identify with’ characters is so much more complex than these reductive identity politics-based formulations allow. The ‘class, race, gender’ mantra occupies so much space in critical conversations now, seldom taking into account how flexible viewers can be when responding to what’s on screen.
MO: It’s like it’s become a prerequisite for response: if the character doesn’t share my own traits, I can’t ‘relate’ unless I’m ready to be demeaned. Still, it’s true that Home Alone is a very ‘white’ film, with the only Black face being the figure of Michael Jordan in the fake party scene, and he’s a cut-out, ‘dancing’ to Brenda Lee’s ‘Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree’!
AR: In Soraya Roberts’s piece ‘The Unwatchable Whiteness of Holiday Movies’ this film inevitably comes in for it: “a rich little white boy … is left behind in an enormous house by his Paris-bound family but is able to fight off a couple of hobo-looking burglars with his wits and wealth.”
MO: Well, if we’re going to view the film as a class parable, then we have to see the burglars as representing the revenge of the working-class. After all, they not only rob the palatial homes: they destroy them by flooding them. And then in the second film they emerge from a crate of fish in the market. It suggests that they’re always lurking somewhere on the unpalatable fringes of affluent, upwardly mobile society that only gratifies educated professionals.
AR: Some say it’s them we should be sympathising with, of course.
MO: The revenge of the proles! Well, nowadays we have Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), which is also about home invasion, class revenge, and inventive ploys that end in a spectacular stand-off. Could it be that Parasite’s ingenious brat, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), with his walkie-talkie, is Kevin’s progeny?
AR: Definitely! And it’s debatable which of the 2 films is more plausible…
MO: But I also think that Home Alone is really one of the last films to openly celebrate American suburbia in an unselfconscious way. As such, it’s a very old-fashioned film, even with some Christian elements put front and centre: “You’re always welcome at Church,” Marley tells Kevin – a line that wouldn’t be out of place coming from an Andy Hardy MGM film in the 1940s. One could even compare it to Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), as a bit of a Valentine card to American suburbia. Plus there are all the references to Christmassy pop culture of the past that the film includes: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), the French-dubbed It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) on TV, and songs like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’.
AR: Yes, the film places itself very deliberately into the continuum of classic American Christmas entertainment, and the ‘Somewhere in My Memory’ lyrics tap right in to a sense of nostalgia, of looking back on “all of the magic” of Christmases past, “feeling that gingerbread feeling…” Yet there’s also an edge to the film that prevents it from being too sweet. British critics often viewed it as irredeemably sentimental or as too violent for impressionable kids to see. Neither perspective seems accurate, and both overlook the film’s comedy. What was the Polish response like?
MO: Since so much American pop culture was kept away from the Eastern Bloc for 5 decades, Polish critics didn’t have an idiom to discuss Home Alone on its own terms. No pop culture credentials were recognised. No mentions of John Hughes were made. What’s interesting, though, is that the film became the subject of serious philosophical discussion on the pages of Film magazine. In fact, Film devoted 3 large pieces to the movie, naming it “a film of cultural significance”. In one, the scholar and translator Jan Gondowicz found deep mythological tropes in the story of Kevin as a defender of a metaphorical castle. And when the sequel opened, the critic Jan Olszewski praised it as “one of the few film masterpieces of recent years”: probably the most outlandish praise ever lavished on the film. Later, when I started reading the American reviews, I was quite surprised to see that the film wasn’t universally acclaimed at all. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars.
AR: And Owen Gleiberman hilariously called it “a sadistic festival of adult-bashing”!
MO: Even today I can’t bring myself to condemn the violence in the film. I can understand why some critics had a problem with it, but it’s cartoon violence and I accept it. It makes me nostalgic for the old days of American slapstick comedy: the lost art of making people laugh through the misadventures of the human body. There’s also more than a whiff of the Three Stooges to all the knockabout sadism here – and I love it!
AR: Yes, and I think Columbus brings more finesse to those parts than Hughes himself might have done as director. What do you think of Macaulay Culkin’s star-making turn?
MO: It’s a good performance with a lot of bratty charisma. He pulls off those to-camera moments and really does everything that’s required for the role.
AR: Later there was some mugging going on in his performances, but here, and in My Girl (1991), he brought a lot of freshness to it. It’s a well-cast film all round, isn’t it?
MO: Yes, even the little cameos – the cashier in the supermarket, the couple whom Kate accosts for their plane tickets – add a lot of texture.
AR: This was probably the first time I saw Catherine O’Hara and she does a great job, conveying Kate’s anxiety and guilt both comically and touchingly. For all the humour that the film milks from extended-family tensions it’s a mother/son story at heart.
MO: That’s true. She’ll do anything to get back to him, whereas John Heard as the father is never so troubled or determined. She questions whether she’s a good mother, but the film never doubts that she is. And she goes on this journey to get back to him.
AR: One of those Hughes travel nightmare odysseys…
MO: Planes, trains and automobiles! And the line “from a mother to a mother” that she delivers at the airport, as she tries to convince the couple played by Bill Erwin and Billie Bird to do a ticket swap, is significant – this sentiment helps to carry her across the ocean. That – and the earrings she gives to the Billie Bird character.
As for the wider family context, I love the interactions of the siblings and cousins and the elaborate insults they come up with. When I read the film’s script that’s available online in an early draft, I discovered that the insults were more profane and sexualised in the text. “Phlegm-wad” was originally “dick rash,” and Buzz went as far as calling Kevin a “microweenie” with “the balls of a butterfly.” Somehow I’m glad these were cut.
AR: You can strongly hear the echo of Hughes’s teen films there. And how would you characterise Home Alone’s cultural afterlife – in Poland particularly?
MO: Well, the film became an absolute classic and is deeply loved in Poland. It’s part of the cultural DNA over here. And let’s not forget: Kate gets crucial assistance from the polka-playing Gus Polinski (John Candy’s character), which further ingratiated the film with the Polish audience. What was the response like in Britain – and what do you think of the film’s status today?
AR: Despite the objections of some critics, it was of course hugely popular in the UK as well and became a cultural touchstone. Personally speaking, though, my close friends at the time were never into it, so it was more of a solitary experience for me as a young viewer. It was the first time I realised that a film can be your friend in a way: something you can feel so connected to.
I also think you have to be quite tough when it comes to childhood favourites these days. Due to the internet, they can so easily be mocked, memed, fragmented and diminished. It was fun to see Culkin revisiting the film in that Google Assistant ad – plus his brilliant ‘What an updated Home Alone would actually look like’ photo – and some of those Buzzfeed lists dedicated to it can be enjoyable. Still, I prefer the homages in other films, such as when Xavier Dolan smuggled 2 references to it into Mommy (2014).
This is what an updated Home Alone would actually look like. pic.twitter.com/sGj86933LA— Macaulay Culkin (@IncredibleCulk) August 7, 2019
MO: The Polish film Cicha Noc (Silent Night, 2018) by Piotr Domalewski also referenced it. That Google Assistant ad scared me, though. It’s underlying suggestion was almost in agreement with Kevin’s initial, angry sentiment: that we don’t need other people in order to function. We have Alexa.
AR: You mentioned Domalewski. It’s nice to see those moments added by filmmakers who grew up with the movie and want to give it a nod.
MO: Watching it the other day, as soon as the music started, I felt a shiver down my spine. It’s incredible how deeply the film became ingrained. I remember all the dialogue and I think it’s also where I first began to become aware of filmmaking, being curious about the shots and how the camera moved. It marked the beginning of my film literacy somehow.
AR: It definitely opened me up to cinema generally. After Home Alone I wanted to see every film I could. I started buying film magazines and writing some reviews. Home Alone was the first film I wrote about. It led me to the child-centred American dramas of the period – Little Man Tate (1991), Paradise (1991) – which introduced me to adult films. So it was a total turning point. It’s where my cinephilia begins and it will always have a special place in my heart for that reason.
MO: Mine, too.