Halfway through Ordinary People, there is a scene in which high schooler Conrad Jarrett’s parents are taking family portraits. His mother and father take turns posing with their only son while his grandparents run the camera. Conrad awkwardly folds his arms, not knowing whether to smile. Father flashes a genuine grin, truly relishing the moment. When it’s Mother’s turn, the two stand together uncomfortably. Father’s trying to take the perfect picture, but Mother doesn’t know how to show Conrad affection, and her fake smile is growing tired. Father takes too long with the camera, Mother gets increasingly frustrated, Grandparents are talking over everyone as usual, and suddenly Conrad explodes. He’s had enough. Not so much with the photo, but with his mother’s inability to stand next to him and smile. Everyone freezes, except Mother. She carries on like nothing happened, hoping to fade back into normality like another ordinary person.
It’s a perfect representation of the family’s dynamic, though not the only one. Ordinary People is made up of small moments like these where characters aren’t saying how they feel, partly to keep up appearances, and partly because they don’t actually understand how they feel. In his directorial debut, Robert Redford proves to be an actor’s director, finding the ticks and gestures that characterize these humans better than any line of dialogue would. This is a movie about a family’s lack of understanding, of each other, yes, but mostly of themselves. They fidget, they pace, they stare blankly, lost in thought. They don’t understand why they feel and act the way they do, so they look to blame each other. After all, Conrad once screams, “It’s gotta be somebody’s fault or there ain’t no goddamn point.”
The big, ugly cloud hanging over the Jarrett family is the death of their eldest son, Jordan, in a boating accident. Despite that last key word, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) feels guilty for not saving his brother and thus has fallen into a deep depression. For his mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), Conrad’s depression is more than anything a shameful nuisance. (Apparently she had a heck of a time getting the blood stains out of the carpet.) But his father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), sees no shame in it and would do anything to help his surviving son, including sending him to therapy.
Outside of therapy, the family tries to appear put together, but they’re plagued by fragmented, repressed memories. Sometimes they’re just flashes, of a boy’s face screaming in the ocean, or a swirling police beacon. Other times they’re a cacophony of angry words spoken between husband and wife. And still other times they’re complete yet seemingly trivial, like Beth telling Calvin to change his shirt and tie for the funeral. Calvin tells himself there’s no reason to understand these flashbacks because “things happen in this world, but people don’t always have answers.” Within therapy, however, everything starts to make sense as Conrad experiences a breakthrough. Mother’s apathy is actually an inability to forgive Conrad, and Conrad’s anger an inability to forgive himself.
Dr. Berger, played by Judd Hirsch, is brusque, casual, and disarmingly matter-of-fact. Today, this could describe any on-screen therapist, but in 1980 this was an unusually positive depiction of psychologists. The portrayal of the actual sessions between doctor and patient is now so prototypical that even the famous climax in Good Will Hunting, in which Matt Damon breaks down in front of Robin Williams, seems to be pulled straight out of Ordinary People. And the movie is filled with these kinds of firsts. It’s Redford’s first film as director, Hutton’s first feature film, and Moore and Hirsch’s first dramatic feature film roles. For so many chances taken, they all must have been the right ones, because the movie went on to win Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Hutton at the Oscars.
Movies about suburbia have been turned into a genre of their own. From American Beauty to Pleasantville to Welcome to the Dollhouse, the thesis always seems to be the same: suburban communities are conformist, oppressive, and fake. But Alvin Sargent’s script for Ordinary People doesn’t show the community pressuring the Jarrett family into normalcy, nor turning its nose up at the notions of depression and therapy. The onus falls squarely on the individual. It’s easy in the face of tragedy to point fingers, but if the Jarretts want to stay intact as a family, they’ll need to take a good, hard look at themselves before worrying about what the neighbors are thinking. Or as Dr. Berger would put it, “Who cares?!”