This is one of those rare films that marries form and content and execution so perfectly that there is a stunned silence at the end of it, a silence that in a concert hall would be followed by an extended standing ovation. There are no tricks here, no special effects, no shocking twists of plot; there is only cinematic storytelling and acting at their very finest.
Ordinary People is the story of a family that has been rocked by an emotional earthquake – the accidental death of a son. The aftershocks of this horror are the near-successful suicide of the surviving child, a cold war between that child and his mother, and the disintegration of what appears on the surface to be a perfect marriage. The film, directed by Robert Redford, beautifully weaves the story of the young man’s painful climb out of the hole of despair, the father/husband’s painful dilemma and the choice he must make, and the mother’s gradual self-isolation and ultimate exile.
There are indications of trouble from the very outset: Conrad, the surviving son, played by Timothy Hutton, wakes in the night breathing heavily and in a sweat, clearly having experienced a bad dream; ensuing scenes reveal a young man who is strung out, whose relationships are strained, who cannot focus on study, who has difficulty navigating the simple minutiae of everyday life. His father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), a man of both generous spirit and a certain naïveté, is worried about Conrad; he wants his son to see a psychiatrist as part of his rehabilitation following the suicide attempt and a long stay in hospital. Beth, Conrad’s mother (Mary Tyler Moore) resents him, for spoiling the façade of a perfect family that she has created and, more likely, for being the survivor of an accident that claimed the life of her favourite.
Conrad’s illness soon reveals a crack in the otherwise unblemished surface of Calvin and Beth’s relationship. At first, their disagreements centre on what to do about Conrad; by the end of the film they have escalated and their focus has shifted to Beth’s inability to connect emotionally with her son – indeed with the world.
Meanwhile Conrad does finally begin seeing a psychiatrist, scruffy, down-to-earth Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), and with the good doctor’s help embarks on the process of self-discovery and healing.
The strain between Beth and Conrad is written with raw truth and is naturally and subtly portrayed by Moore and Hutton. In some of the most finely wrought scenes of the film, Beth tries to engage her son, but her efforts appear to be motivated by guilt or duty, perhaps even pity; it is achingly apparent, however, that she is unable or unwilling to summon the tenderness and understanding of a mother’s love. Conrad attempts to bridge the gap as well but he possesses neither the energy nor the skill to break through the emotional carapace with which his mother has armoured herself. When Conrad reaches the point, in his journey back to health, where he is ready to confront the issues that have created a wall between him and his mother, Beth pushes him away, often by obliquely criticizing him. At one point Conrad complains to Dr. Berger, “What do people have in common with mothers anyways? It’s all surface junk – you know, ‘Clean your room. Brush your teeth. Get good grades….’”
While Conrad is opening himself up more and more under the subtle direction of Dr. Berger, Calvin begins to realize that he too is undergoing a transformation. His business partner calls him on his recent distractedness and offers him some precious advice based on his own experiences, which are similar to Calvin’s: You need to stop obsessing about your son’s issues and start taking care of your own.
Calvin notices that the world to which he has grown so accustomed – complicated stock deals, a button-down marriage, a predictably high-achieving son – has suddenly gone askew, and he too ends up in Dr. Berger’s office, admitting to the psychiatrist, “I can see myself, and I can see the two of them, drifting away from me, and I just stand there watching….I feel like I’m sitting on a fence and I don’t like it.”
The visit to Berger’s office is a turning point for Calvin, and a turning point in the film. As Conrad moves toward a complete recovery, a state which, finally, includes accepting and loving his mother for who she is, Calvin is faced with the bitter fact that Beth has not changed and that he can longer ignore the abyss that exists between the romantic image he has held for so long and the reality of the woman who seems incapable of love. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what we’ve been playing at.” Calvin has chosen the side of the fence he wishes to be on. And Beth knows it.
Timothy Hutton’s utterly convincing portrayal of a deeply troubled but courageous young man whose journey back into the world is tenuous and difficult is one of those cinematic gifts rarely offered to audiences, a multi-faceted gem that can be appreciated anew each time it is brought out for inspection. Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth is a woman whose brittle surface barely conceals the depth of insecurity and grief that lies underneath. And Calvin, lovingly played by Mr. Sutherland, is a man who personifies the complex and agonizing process of falling out of love and falling in love in the same life breath. Finally, Judd Hirsch is the Merlin who quietly but firmly nudges these souls toward new insights into themselves and into life.
Ordinary People is another example of the well told “small story” that artfully affirms a universal truth about the human condition.
Wikipedia “Ordinary People” Poster
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