Ordinary People

(USA 1980)

Ordinary People is exactly the kind of film I love: moody and dark with dysfunctional, even unlikeable characters and an unresolved, downright unhappy ending. Throw in a Chicago North Shore setting, two major sitcom stars, and Robert Redford as director and I’m all over it.

The plot is pretty simple: the Jarrett family is dealing with the death of Buck (Scott Doebler), the older of two teenaged boys. Younger brother Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who lived in Buck’s shadow and survived him in a boating accident, has just returned from a stint at a mental hospital. He can’t quite get back into the normal swing of things. His parents, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), are also having a tough time. Conrad sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch)—whose office is somewhere on Sheridan Road—and the two work on getting him through his survivor’s guilt.

Unlike the plot, the family dynamic is complicated. Difficult. Calvin reaches out to his son and his wife, but he’s painfully awkward. His unsuccessful attempts to find common ground where they can all meet made me wince at times. Beth is in complete denial; absorbed by social events and golfing, she doesn’t seem to notice Conrad. She is incapable of understanding him or helping him heal. It’s causing the family unit to unravel. Maybe it was never strong to begin with.

Ordinary People is a quiet film that sneaks up you—you don’t see how intense it is until the credits roll. It’s chilling and haunting, something that stays with you. The writing is excellent, and the cast couldn’t be better. The drama here is not so much in what happens, but in how the characters face each other. Hutton won an Oscar for his performance (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordinary_People), and he evokes a boatload of sympathy. However, he succeeds because of his mother: unlike her television persona, Tyler Moore is stone cold. We get a hint that her facade cracks soon after the final scene, but it’s left to our imagination. She does an amazingly powerful job here.

124 minutes
Rated R

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