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Mind Over Pop Culture: Ordinary People

We’ve talked about how grief translates to film well, and how it dominates the discussion of mental health in American pop culture. The cinematic qualities of loss were easy to define and understand, so the emotion took hold as an appropriate topic for important movies. Many of those movies don’t have anything new to say about it. However, every so often, one does, and Ordinary People is one of those movies. By focusing on one family member’s grief and showing how it ripples through the other family members, the movie says something really powerful.

Ordinary People is about the Jarrett family, specifically Conrad Jarrett, the family’s teenage son. His older brother Buck drowned in a boating accident that Conrad survived. The guilt and grief pushed Conrad to a breakdown that led to a suicide attempt. His father, tax attorney Calvin, found the boy and saved him, leading Conrad to spend 6 months in a mental hospital. The movie is set two months after he returns home and begins to put his life back together. He sees a psychiatrist, begins dating a fellow student and deals with his father’s grief and his mother’s anger. Strong performances by Donald Sutherland as Calvin, Mary Tyler Moore as Beth and especially Timothy Hutton as Conrad, anchor the film.

The movie is small but influential, focusing on the family and its grief. Hutton, who would be the youngest Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner at 20, grounds Conrad in reality. He’s a scared, troubled boy holding on to grief, anger and fear, and Hutton makes all of that believable. He wants to do what’s right and be perfect, but he can’t. The swell of emotions is palpable and well-drawn, and as an audience member, you feel terrible for Conrad. He can’t seem to do anything right, and the guilt weighs on him almost psychically. His performance is the center of the movie, and you feel for the young man. The portrayal of grief is not groundbreaking in what it contains, but how masterfully he performs it. Judd Hersh, who plays Dr. Berger, is a wonderful, strong presence who actually helps Conrad in meaningful ways. His therapy is full of actual wisdom, instead of platitudes, and he makes the character feel as important to the movie as he does to Conrad.

Where the movie gets in to the groundbreaking stuff is with his parents. The older Jarretts seem to have the perfect life. They are upper class, have supportive friends and go to great parties. They even go on vacation. Calvin tells Dr. Berger, Conrad’s psychiatrist, that he thought that his life was perfect. He loves his son very much and does everything he can to help him. He encourages Conrad to go to therapy, takes an active interest in the boy’s health and is a generally good presence. He is grieving as well, but is able to articulate his grief and uses it to help his son heal. Both men understand that something is wrong and are willing to address it.

Beth, Conrad’s mother, is a different story entirely. She is cold, angry and depressed, but won’t admit to any of it. At first, she seems like she shut down with Bucks’s death, refusing to acknowledge anything is wrong. She yells at Calvin for telling family friends about Conrad’s therapy, goads him into taking a vacation without him and repeatedly tells Calvin that Conrad is just trying to manipulate him into doing whatever he wants. At no time in the movie does that seem to be true at all, even when Conrad might have been able to. Calvin tells her that Conrad just wants to know she doesn’t hate him, and she can’t even do that. When she and Conrad finally have an argument, Conrad yells that she never came to visit him in the hospital and says that she’d visit Buck. She yells that “Buck would never have been in the hospital.” It’s a bold choice to have the mother as the withdrawn, angry parent since those traits are usually assigned to fathers in movies about grief. By the end of the movie, Calvin admits that he’s not sure she can love anyone, and she doesn’t argue with him, but rather runs away from the problems. It’s a great, brave performance for Mary Tyler Moore, who's able to push all of her America’s Sweetheart energy completely away.

By looking at how Conrad’s grief and guilt affect his parents and their grief, Ordinary People said something interesting about the process of healing. It's another great example of therapy being used in a positive way in a movie, perhaps better than I’ve seen since I’ve started this blog. It suffers from the same “only rich white people get therapy” issue that a lot of movies suffer from, but that is a larger Hollywood problem.

I highly recommend this one, especially if you want a good cry. Next week, we’ll look at Prozac Nation, an early 2000s film about mental health in college. Have you seen Ordinary People? What did you think?

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