Ordinary People (1980)

Robert Redford directs Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland in this Oscar winning drama about a teenager overcoming mental health issues that his grieving parents cannot understand. 

The movie poster for this was a family portrait where each member is separated by their own gilt but cold frame. And that’s the movie entire, people who should love each other who cannot break out of their own boxes to adequately care for each other. The tensions and battles and rare moment of empathy that causes. It is an emotionally brutal film, for you care about Timothy Hutton’s guilt stricken, damaged son. His brother, the golden child, died a year ago and slowly you realise that his mother either blames him for the accident or resents him for surviving. Hutton performs a complex part with dignity, warmth and restraint. You genuinely feel his isolation and loneliness, want to give him a hug and the guidance he clearly lacks at home. Mary Tyler Moore is chilling as the matriarch who can turn on a dime from sunny and organised to wounding and resentful. Maybe the film is unfair to put all the psychological blame at her controlling door?Donald Sutherland adds another bereft father role to his back catalogue. A bumbling gregarious man who wants to be there for his son, reunite the child and his wife, but can only find blunt platitudes to say or accidentally inspire conflict he cannot fathom. Redford’s direction captures the strong performances well, lets them articulate the tension by allowing the actors get lost in moments where the world slips from them. The editing of Hutton’s school day for example is off pace, intentionally moving a little too fast so we share the overwhelming nature of this troubled kid trying to be normal. John Bailey’s cinematography captures the passing seasons well, the ominous beauty of an autumnal street, the unforgiving chill of a winter playground. Often it’s a film that looks like a yuppie in peril thriller rather than a sensitive drama about therapy. I appreaciate what a fine film Ordinary People is, but it isn’t really a film for me. It lacks the humour of the other upper class suburban dramas I do rewatch like The Ice Storm or Wonder Boys. And I don’t identify with this community finding “working class” stories that cover similar ground (Good Will Hunting, Manchester By the Sea) more effecting. That’s my personal prejudice though… if you come from money or class is no issue for you then you’ll no doubt rate this superbly crafted film far higher than me.


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