The film takes place in the aftermath of tragedy. Older all-star son, Buck, was killed in a boating accident and surviving brother, Conrad, blames himself so harshly that he tried to commit suicide. After being released from the hospital (we assume for psychological problems, but it’s never explicitly revealed), Conrad and his parents have trouble communicating and moving forward. Everyone is walking on eggshells and so afraid to hear each other’s thoughts their house feels like a hallow cave. The warmth of love and laughter has been removed.
Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is such a desperate character. He’s about seventeen, has swim practice every night, sings in the choir, and has trouble talking to girls on top of all his family issues. The performance is painfully honest and beautiful as Conrad becomes stronger and starts to accept his lot. Hutton’s win for supporting actor is well deserved.
The relationship between father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and son is healthy. They can talk, but there isn’t a desperate need to between them. They’re able to bond and find comfort in small things, like getting a Christmas tree. In the beginning, Calvin asks his son if he’s given any thought to seeing a shrink. He never pushes one way or another, there’s simply support of his options and room to breathe.
If that conversation had been between mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and son, I doubt Conrad would’ve ever seen a doctor. Since Buck’s death their relationship has been very hostile, and Conrad even believes that his mother hates him. Beth and her son cannot talk at all, not even about something as breezy and trivial as how their day was. As Conrad makes progress with Dr. Berger, he tries to include his mother more, but they’re so awkward it’s painful to see Conrad try to break through the wall his mother has put up. We start to question who needs help most.
Now many people will say that Ordinary People is about teen suicide, family tragedy and all that juicy stuff. I believe the core of the story is something deeper that people can’t just read in the papers. There’s a unique courage that builds in Conrad, the kind one needs in order to reach out for help and let life move on.
It’s humbling and scary to confide in a stranger about the horrible things you’re feeling in your life. The scenes between Conrad and Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) get deeper, more revealing and dramatic with every visit. It’s almost beautiful how Conrad starts to blossom and grow from shy and disturbed to confident and even able to smile. Sometimes a boy’s best friend is his psychiatrist.
I’ll warn you, Ordinary People isn’t a feel good breeze to just sit back and zone out to. There’s too much deep conversation, painfully pregnant pauses and family issues for that. But it’s worth the view if you’re up to the challenge.
“A little advice about feelings kiddo; don’t expect it always to tickle.”