By Savannah C. Purvis
This review contains spoilers.
Ordinary People is a fictional drama that tells the story of lonely teenager Conrad Jarrett. Conrad ( Timothy Hutton) is a sixteen-year-old high school student who has just been released from the psychiatric hospital following his suicide attempt. His parents, Calvin and Beth ( Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore ), are struggling to balance Conrad’s deteriorating mental state and the memory of their older son, Buck, whose death was what lead Conrad into his downward spiral.
This movie is excellent, and can be looked at from many different perspectives and viewpoints. The majority of the characters are instantly likable, or at the very least intriguing. The viewer immediately feels for Conrad, and shares his pain as they desperately hope that things will get better for him. His father, though flawed, is a sympathetic character as well; it’s almost impossible for your heart not to break as you watch him do everything he can to help his son and attempt to keep peace in their highly emotional household. Another stellar member of the cast is Conrad’s psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, who arguably helps our protagonist the most during his journey.
Conrad’s mother is a bit of a different story. Beth Jarrett is at times sympathetic while at other times fully detestable. We are given the family’s backstory in snippets throughout, another part of what makes the movie so effective; the viewer is constantly left wanting more, desiring to see exactly why this group of seemingly ordinary people ( as suggested by the title ) are as tangled and broken as they are.
It grows increasingly obvious during the run of the film that Beth favored Buck over Conrad, and when he died, the entire family was sent into turmoil. It does an excellent job of conveying the relationship that Beth shared with her older son, and how deeply broken she is at his loss. Mary Tyler Moore is phenomenal at the strained scenes that she shares with both Conrad and Calvin; as the story progresses, the viewer gets an up-close look at what a toll the loss of their eldest child has taken on her marriage.
Timothy Hutton, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his role as Conrad, was stellar in the entirety of the movie, but more specifically, also, in the scenes with his mother. At different times throughout the film, we see the two try painfully to communicate, but it just never works. Most is due to her cold nature, but some is simply because of the space that has most likely always been between them, but grown more obvious after Buck’s death. Nearing the end of the movie, after a blowout which breaks their relationship even further, Conrad tells his father that he believes his mother hates him, which Calvin repeats to his wife in the next scene. Beth, to her credit, looks shocked at the accusation. “Of course I don’t hate him,” she responds incredulously. “Mother’s don’t hate their sons.” Well, that’s certainly not the way she’s been acting for the duration of the movie.
From my viewpoint, there are three standouts in this film: the depictions of family, mental illness, and forgiveness. Watching an ordinary family react to extraordinary circumstances (even if they aren’t pleasant ones) is probably the main focus of the movie. As the story progresses, we begin to see the actions of people under stress along with the repercussions of those actions. We watch a teenager trying to deal with his brothers’ death, and cope with the guilt of feeling he could have saved him. We see a long-married couples’ relationship failing under the pressure of the lives they lead now. No one is portrayed as perfect. Beth clearly has her fair share of struggles, as does Calvin. In fact, Conrad even states later in the movie that he doesn’t feel comfortable talking to his dad about his mental state because he feels he isn’t truly listening. “Everything’s German pudding with you, Dad. You don’t see things,” he tells him, in tears after a particularly hurtful conversation with his mother. And the heartbreaking thing is, he’s right. He so deeply wants to settle the relationship between mother and son that he oftentimes chooses to be oblivious to the virtually unbreakable strain existing between them.
As far as its depiction of mental illness, the movie is spot on. While it expects the viewer to feel sympathy for Conrad’s suicide attempt, it also doesn’t glorify the disability like other stories (i.e. 13 Reasons Why and, in my opinion, Dear Evan Hansen). His actions garner the need for forgiveness from both his parents and himself. He once tells his doctor that he knows his mother will never forgive him for his mistake, which is clearly seen as a negative thing. What is seen positively is the fact that in time, he is able to forgive himself, accepting the fact that he’s not the same person he was a year ago and that he’s stronger and more secure.
A perfect example of the movie’s illustration of mental illness is a particular scene during which Conrad visits his therapist during what seems to be an intense panic attack. He is in a downward spiral, telling Dr. Berger how afraid he is. “I know,” Berger replies. “Feelings are scary, and sometimes they’re painful. But if you don’t feel pain, then you’re not going to feel anything else either. You know what I’m saying?”
“I think so,” Conrad responds.
“You’re here, and you’re alive,” Berger tells him next. “And don’t tell me you don’t feel that.”
“It doesn’t feel good,” Conrad says.
Berger places a hand on his shoulder. “It is good,” he says. “Believe me.”
“How do you know?” Conrad asks.
“Because I’m your friend,” he replies quietly.
This one short segment makes the movie what it is; what makes it so appealing to so many people. The idea of life not always being fun and easy, even when you’re sixteen; the idea that it’s scary and messy and doesn’t always feel good is something the writers accomplish exceptionally well. It shows that holding your emotions and anxiety inside only makes it harder for yourself and the people around you to deal with whatever you’re suffering from.
So, what can a believer take away from this movie? I would start with forgiveness. The powerful message of what forgiveness is – or rather, what it isn’t – is a large focus in the movie. We see the freedom that comes with forgiving yourself for the things you’ve done wrong. We see the effects of refusing to forgive, and the toll that it takes on a marriage that has lasted for two decades. We see people either reach a level of redemption through their forgiveness, or throw away broken things that could have been fixed with a little work. And, despite the fact that the movie holds some content that could make some believers uncomfortable, there’s a lot to see through the work of forgiveness and exoneration.
In short, Ordinary People is a well-acted, well-written, and well-directed movie. It brings its story to life, and makes the people in it seem as vibrant as those sitting in the room with you now. Most of all, it makes you feel. It might make you feel happy, it might make you feel sad, it might make you feel peaceful or angry or confused. And maybe, in the end, just a little bit hopeful.
But it will make you feel.
And, as stated by Dr. Berger to our protagonist in one scene, “A little advice about feeling, kiddo: don’t expect it always to tickle.”
This movie is rated R and does contain some objectionable material. The Lord’s name is used in vain several times via the expletive G- D-. There is also a couple of uses of the F- word. These instances, for the most part, are few and far between and do not, in my opinion, overshadow the movie. But they do exist. Whether you should watch the movie or not…I leave that to you.
Savannah is a daughter, a sister and more importantly a child of God. She loves movies and wants you to love them just as much. She is a rising senior in High School and currently resides in the great state of Florida. She is also co-producer of Growth Project radio and a regular contributor to the Growth Project ministry.