Oscar Review: Ordinary People (1980)

They don’t make movies like our next film anymore. Winner of 4 Academy Awards and nominated for 2 others, Ordinary People is a phenomenal piece.

We meet young Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) soon after his return to school after spending time in a psychiatric hospital. Slowly getting back into the swing of things with school, friends, the swim team, and life at home Conrad struggles to find his place.

Conrad’s father (Donald Sutherland) tries to treat him like a normal teenager, while his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) tries to pretend like nothing ever happened. He realizes more and more how far removed he is from his former life and how his friends aren’t as understanding as he needs them to be.

After visiting a new doctor (Judd Hirsch), Conrad begins to grapple with the death of his brother, his subsequent suicide attempt, and how he will move forward in a meaningful way. When he quits the swim team and doesn’t want to do many of the things he used to, his mother only becomes more detached from Conrad and hostile about her family’s fortune over the past year.

As his life begins to come back together, Conrad tries to rekindle the bonds with his parents and he steps out of his shell enough to forge a relationship with Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). After a number of cold encounters with his mother and a major breakthrough with his doctor, Conrad finally turns a corner, though nothing will ever be the same.
*****
His directorial debut, Ordinary People earned Robert Redford his only competitive Oscar. Timothy Hutton’s role as tormented teen Conrad Jarrett won him a statuette as well and made him the youngest actor ever to win a Best Supporting Actor honor at the age of 20.

This is one of those films that I can watch over and over and is one of my all time favorites. Though I can’t identify with the specific situations faced by Conrad – suicidal thoughts, loss of a brother, distant parents, etc. – I have always been able to find a little bit of myself in his struggles to find himself and to make sense of the world around him.

Ordinary People is of an older style of filmmaking that takes things at a slower pace and allows the characters to really drive the story. Interactions between Conrad and his mother, for example, seem to take a long time in order to make the viewer feel the tension in their relationship. Deeper than that, I think, is the fact that taking such large steps and finally developing a meaningful existence takes time and we are asked to walk alongside Conrad as he tries to figure it all out.

It’s a great film and I think if you allow yourself to really engage the story you will be drawn in and fall in love with it as I did. Enjoy!

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