Based on the noel by Judith Guest and the screenplay by Alvin Sargent, and directed by Robert Redford, “Ordinary People” tells the story of just that – ordinary people. The movie’s tagline says it best – “Some films you watch, others you feel.”
The Jarrett family has been torn apart by the death of the eldest son in a boating accident. When we join them, the recent subsequent suicide attempt of the younger son, Conrad, who is riddled with survivor guilt, drives the family into deeper despair and anxiety. Conrad, played to teenage-angst perfection by Timothy Hutton, struggles with his own feelings of grief and loss and yearns for the love and forgiveness of his mother. Beth, the mother played by Mary Tyler Moore, favored her eldest son and finds herself unable to comfort her youngest. Calvin, the father played by Donald Sutherland, tries to hold his family together but is caught between the two people he loves most. Judd Hirsch is the therapist trying to help the family heal and realize they are ordinary people.
Conrad searches for his place within the family structure, feeling second-best to his beloved older brother. He also looks for acceptance and friendship among those he meets on the road to recovery. Elizabeth McGovern gives an enchanting performance as a fellow suicide-attempt survivor who befriends Conrad. His therapist attempts to help Conrad come to terms with his guilt and his feelings of rejection by his mother.
Conrad’s attempted suicide is a symptom of a family struggling to cope with immeasurable grief and loss in an environment where open communication isn’t an option. It is as poignant and meaningful today as it was when it was first released in 1980.
“Ordinary People” won 4 Oscars and stands as a testament to the deep abiding feelings within all of us. Guilt, loss, fear and most of all love bind us all together as ordinary people.