Screenwriting by Alvin Sargent (based on a novel by Judith Guest)
Starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton
Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Wildwood Enterprises
Rated R for language
Running time 124 minutes
Author’s note: This review contains some spoilers for Ordinary People.
Robert Redford’s Ordinary People portrays a teenager wrestling with—and overcoming—the complexities of unearned guilt while his mother fails to resolve her own psychological problems. As mental health issues abound in America and beyond, this Academy Award-winning film remains as relevant today as it was when released forty years ago.
Based on Judith Guest’s novel of the same title, the film explores the fractured lives of the Jarrets, a family from an upper-middle-class Chicago suburb. Despite their affluence and appearances, Calvin and Beth Jarret, played by Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore, have troubles graver than most families. Their eldest son, Buck, drowned in a boating accident, and their surviving son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), beset by grief and guilt, later attempted suicide. This powerful psychological drama revolves around the strained relationship between Conrad and Beth—both of whom struggle with feelings of guilt and depression—and their conflicting ways of dealing with these emotions.
The picture opens with Conrad returning home, and to high school, after a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. He and his mother, a fastidious homemaker who treated Buck as the favored child, have trouble communicating and connecting. Their awkward interactions and superficial conversations ultimately speak to underlying, fundamental problems. For example, she tells him to clean his closet, wear a jacket in the cold, and the like; he informs her of his test scores and swim times at school—but they fail to discuss deeper issues that both are feeling.
In one scene, Beth sits beside a contemplative Conrad lying on a lawn chair in their backyard, and she tries to initiate an intimate talk with him, something they rarely have. When he reminds her that she never allowed their family to have a pet dog, Beth tries to change the subject, they talk over each other, and Conrad suddenly starts barking. She leaves to go make dinner. Conrad follows and offers to set the table, appearing poised to open up. But she rejects his olive branch, telling him to go tidy his bedroom instead. Their conversation goes nowhere.
With his father’s encouragement, Conrad reluctantly visits a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). Initially uneasy, Conrad finds his therapy sessions useful, willingly giving up some weekly swim practices to talk with Berger. When Conrad eventually comments to Berger that perhaps he needs medication, the doctor dismisses the suggestion, opting instead for cognitive therapy. When Conrad opens up about his thoughts and feelings, Berger asks probing questions such as “why” and “what for,” helping Conrad identify the causes of his emotional torment. Conrad begins to better understand his emotions and to find constructive means of dealing with them. As a result, he’s more confident in making his own decisions and acting on them, despite the disapproval of others.
In his directing debut, Redford teamed up with screenwriter Alvin Sargent, and both won Oscars for their work. The duo pepper the film with many subtleties that efficiently develop characterization and plot. For instance, Conrad’s unfocused state is implied when he enters an empty elevator but forgets to press a floor number, and his turmoil is conveyed through flashbacks and nightmares involving the capsized boat. Conrad and Beth’s divide is underscored when they stand awkwardly apart while posing for family photos. The different attitudes of the two parents—Beth’s apparent indifference toward Conrad and Calvin’s steadfast concern for him—is suggested when the couple return home at night and she heads straight to their bedroom while he pauses to check on Conrad in bed.
Sutherland delivers one of his finest performances as Calvin, the understanding but pragmatic husband-father caught between his quarrelsome wife and son. Calvin comes to reflect and recognize that, despite Conrad’s highs and lows, his son is working to resolve what ails him, whereas his wife, through Moore’s compelling and convincing Oscar-nominated portrayal of Beth, drifts in the opposite direction.
Together as patient and doctor, Hutton and Hirsch deliver deep, passionate, and authentic performances. (Both were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Hutton took home the Oscar.) Thanks to Berger’s expert guidance, Conrad makes substantive breakthroughs. At one point, when Berger withholds an insight about forgiveness and Conrad insists that he reveal it, the doctor refuses but advises, “Think about it. Just think about it,” coaching Conrad to trust his own introspective abilities. Their sessions together crescendo in one of the most dramatic, thoughtful, and emotionally charged climaxes in films of this kind.
Conrad and Beth’s contrasting approaches to dealing with their inner conflicts carry the film’s overarching theme of thought and action versus evasion and inertia. Conrad thinks, introspects, and acts independently to overcome his psychological demons, primarily the products of unearned guilt. Beth ultimately adopts a willful ignorance toward her emotional status quo and, consequently, to her role in her family’s troubles. A symptom of her evasion is an inability to connect with her feelings, including grief.
Audiences of modern film and literature, including emotionally distraught teenagers who might identify with Conrad Jarret, have for decades been offered endless stories championing psychological misfits and other antiheroes that fail miserably to inspire. That’s all the more reason to celebrate such a rare cinematic gem as Ordinary People, in which a character triumphs over crippling psychological distress.
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