The Academy Awards during the 1980s were full of films full of emotion and crying and families suffering together, and no film full of more trauma and emotional relationships than ‘Ordinary People’. Luckily it’s good.
Buck and Conrad (Timothy Hutton) are brothers. When Buck dies in a boating accident, Conrad feels responsible for his death and suicidal and starts undergoing extensive therapy. Their mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) does not show her feelings and puts on the performance that they are coping. She is cold towards her surviving son, leading him to feel unloved. The father (Donald Sutherland) tries to hold the family together but the audience have to watch this desperate and devastating story unfold.
What elevates this film over other tearjerkers of the era is that the film and characters do not behave in the way that one would expect. The actions of the mother especially feel wrong and this is what makes the film so utterly compelling. Her actions are such that the audience wants to know why she is acting in this way, and rather than presenting a shallow character of a grieving mother, we are actually presented with a much more complex and intriguing character. Mary Tyler Moore handles this part well, and although there are actresses who would have been more obvious choices, she does enough to make the part her own.
Sutherland is also highly watchable as the father who blames his bad parenting for the state of his surviving son. He is plays the helpless father well: torn between his distant wife and distressed son, he wants to appease everyone whilst he is grieving himself.
The person who really does make the film his own is Hutton. He scooped the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance, but really this is a Leading Actor role, and especially considering his young age he does a fantastic job. He manages to play the role of a young boy who is confused, devastated and lonely without ever over-acting for one minute. You can believe that he is in that situation and I cannot think of many child performances that I have seen that have been of such a high quality.
Despite the serious subject matter, the script never allows the film to become mawkish (a trait of lesser dramas) and the film takes a realist approach rather than going over the top, which would not have worked with this dark and tragic subject matter.
The film also tries to grasp the feeling of the snobbery and waspish attitudes of Illinois, the way that ‘American Beauty’ did 20 years later, and although I do not feel that ‘Ordinary People’ is quite the artistic triumph of ‘American Beauty’, it is a moving and memorable film that should be watched for some outstanding acting performances and for being a successful directorial debut for Robert Redford.