Ordinary People (1980) – Film Review

‘Ordinary People’ shows that a drama doesn’t need to be flashily edited or force intense drama into the obnoxious use of a shaky-cam. Here, we see a modern family encountered with internal issues, and they all play out in a wide lens, where all the gesture and concerns of the family are seen, or unseen, in the case of the mother. The past unravels subtly through the course of the film: Conrad Jarrett is a quiet teenager with transparent problems with himself and his surroundings. Once the story starts, his point of desperation is of the past: he is a post-suicide patient. The Jarrett family is torn between the grief of losing their older son in a boating, and the grief of almost losing their younger son. Based on a novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People is a movie that you will remember for its characters. This is a screen that is filled with characters that are as descriptive, it seems, as they were in the pages of Guest’s book.

The mother is a self-restrained, calculated mess, who can’t handle her son and the trouble he puts on her; nor can she handle the fact that her older son, her prize sportsman, is gone forever. One emotionally exhausting scene is when Conrad comes home unexpected to find his mother, while she is sitting and breathing in the room of her first son. The room seems to not have been cleaned or altered a hair. With Conrad standing tensely in the hallway, she yelps that she didn’t expect him home, seeming to be angry, almost a mechanism to cover up any form of weakness she thinks she is displaying. Conrad sees it differently: he wants a mother who will mourn with him, not one who dreads while the rest of the family isn’t home.

The father is an over-sympathetic wreck, throwing blame on himself where he should be nurturing. He is an extremely loving person, and ends up attending the same psychiatrist Conrad is going to. He hopes to piece his family together, but so much lack of assurance from his wife and son leaves him in quiet desperation.

And Conrad, the sullen, skinny teenager, is quiet yet tempered, walking through life as if he just made bail and has been released from prison. He is in the shroud of surviving attempted suicide, and it is a cause in itself to be weighed down: it seems like all eyes are on Conrad’s behavior, hawks perching along side, making sure he is alright, but little else. When a conversation is most engaging while talking about hurting oneself or the death of a family member, a personality disorder cannot seem very odd.

The film is a magnificent exploration of family dynamics and the suppression and consequence of extreme grief. Every performance is well-defined and complex–a film that won’t be forgotten easy, like the lost Sonny, because of the sheer impact of its characters, both in story and relevance.

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