Ordinary People (1980)

Directed by Robert Redford

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Robert Redford’s first film as a director is a doozy.  Ordinary People chronicles the struggle of a family to relate to each other and to themselves following the death of a teenaged son.  The people left reeling in his wake are parents Beth and Calvin (Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland) and young son Conrad (Timothy Hutton).

The film would go on to win Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Hutton), Best Adapted Screenplay and be nominated for Best Actress (Moore) as well as Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch).  Such acclaim might give you hope or pause, considering the Oscars’ occasionally spotty track record (Crash, Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Shakespeare in Love, etc. – not to say these are bad movies, just crowd pleasers), but here I’d say it’s well deserved.  Ordinary People is certainly not a crowd pleaser, dealing with uncomfortable circumstances and tragedies, something which never quite feels as melodramatic as it might in other hands.

Conrad feels the death of his brother most clearly and most visibly.  When the film opens he has already returned home after several months at a psychiatric hospital following a failed suicide attempt after his brother’s death.  The scars on his wrist are thick and dark, and they will come up in one of the more heartbreaking, quiet scenes of the movie.

Conrad’s father, Calvin, wants desperately to find some kind of normalcy in what’s left of their family, but Beth keeps her distance, at least emotionally, from her son.  There is a Cold War of emotion going on between all three of them, and because of their shared pain and the clear fact that not one of them is wrong to feel the way they feel, there seems little hope that any of them will be able to cover the widening gap between them.

Conrad, however, begins meeting with a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Hirsch), who helps him open up and access the emotion and pain that he has been trying so hard to suppress.  He begins to better access a seething anger which he has felt since his brother’s death.  It’s an anger and resentment directed at his brother, his mother and, most of all, at himself.  It’s a basic frustration and confusion as to how such terrible things can happen to anyone, assuming there is no one responsible for what happened, and there wasn’t.

Conrad’s growth has to do with coming to terms with the idea that no one was at fault when his brother died.  Things could have been done differently, but as Dr. Berger points out, terrible things can happen no matter how prepared you are.  That’s life, and it’s important for Conrad to recognize that it’s okay to feel angry, if only because feeling it will help him let go of it.

As Conrad gets better, his parents’ marriage grows increasingly rocky.  While they have their son to fret about (and certainly argue about), his increased independence creates a vacuum which they struggle to fill.  As Conrad begins a playful romance with a classmate, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), he begins to heal (though not without a few bumps and bruises), and Beth and Calvin are left to reevaluate themselves.

It leads to a few ugly but human fights which then leads to Calvin’s confession to his wife, that he no longer loves her and isn’t sure she loves him.  He reasons that this was the case even before their son died and their other son tried to take his own life.  It’s a disturbing scene for a number of reasons, mostly because of how haunting and quiet and abstract it is.  They respond to problems that have existed since even before the truly horrific moments of their life, but it requires them to look through these traumas to get a sense of what has really gone wrong.

I guess I just hope I never have to find myself in such a situation, coming to terms with a broken dream after having already endured two unimaginable tragedies.  It just kind of makes you want to crawl up into a ball and never get involved with another person.

Ordinary People, however, is fantastic.  I think this would all normally be a melodrama, and I tend to enjoy a good melodrama, but I was so gripped by the conflict here that calling it a melodrama seems too reductive.  It’s a story about grief and the troubles of communicating with another human being.

Watching the two couples in this film (Beth & Calvin, Conrad & Jeannine) struggle to communicate makes the idea of maintaining any kind of connection with another person feel wildly implausible, as if we are designed to live a life in isolation and then die alone.  The characters of Ordinary People might as well be spitting in the face of whatever God you want to imagine is out there when they attempt to reach out to another person.

So it’s the characters’ attempts at connection that make this feel strangely heartwarming, and you see it most in the budding relationship between Conrad and Jeannine.  It’s awkward and teenager-y, and it takes a melancholic turn when he opens up to her about his scars only to have the moment intruded upon by a series of rowdy teenagers.  Jeannine gets sucked into the momentary chaos and in the process ignores the blatant pain of the boy sitting across from her.  He is too self-loathing and polite to admit to feeling hurt, and she is unable to tell if any line has been crossed though it’s clear she recognizes his gaunt expression and wants to mend whatever has just been broken.

They don’t fight in the way movie characters tend to fight, but their silence is thick, and the distance between them is stark and obvious.  It’s painful because, at least to me, it feels incredibly honest.  Conrad carries a lot of weight from the tragedy he’s still recovering from, and this requires her, in some sense, to walk on egg shells around him, though he wouldn’t wish for her to be so on guard.

I guess this movie is just an extreme example of the baggage we bring into some relationships and out of others.  It’s a story about grief and the ways in which it can eat some of us alive and for others be overcome.

Okay, last thought.  I suppose grief, at least in a romantic sense, is meant to clarify things in our lives.  We like to think that no matter how strong the pain, we will come out the other side all the wiser for what we’ve been through.  It provides meaning to the suffering, but in Ordinary People not everyone comes out the other side.  Such suffering is miserable and, for some, inescapable.  The best you can do is learn to live alongside it rather than underneath it.

Up Next: Pet Sematary (1989), Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), RoboCop (1987)

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