There are many, many movies about death and dying and they have everything from macabre humor to romantic redemption to chess-playing knights to Bette Davis chewing the scenery (“I’ll have an order of prognosis negative!”). But most of the time, they don’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to real life and the kind of havoc that loss can wreak on a family. In the latter part of the last century there were two movies that stood out from the rest, at least for me: Ordinary People and One True Thing.
Ordinary People is beautifully shot, populated with pretty people and lovely places. But all the loveliness is just a veneer covering the misery of an Illinois family, trapped in grief after the death of their oldest boy. This film, and the novel upon which it is based, is filled with the stuff of parental nightmares: the death of a child and the near-death of his sibling and the effect these have on the family.
Teenagers Buck and Conrad Jarrett capsize a boat on Lake Michigan, and Buck does not survive. Unable to come together in their grief, the remaining family members splinter off into their respective personal Hells. Conrad, the surviving younger son, breaks down completely and very nearly kills himself in his bathroom. Beautiful mother Beth thrives on order; she keeps Buck’s room preserved as he left it and simply cannot deal with Conrad, his need for validation and desire to be forgiven for living through the boating accident that killed his brother. And father Calvin tries desperately to maintain the family, even as it disintegrates around him. Rather than forming a united front to help each other grieve, everyone begins to flounder, their wounds grow deeper and their grief more pronounced, impeding the healing process.
One True Thing is the story of Ellen Gulden, an up and coming magazine writer who lives in The City (New York, of course) and whose father, George, is a college professor and novelist whom she reveres. It also the story of Kate Gulden, who is just a housewife and therefore not as worthy of her daughter’s adulation and respect. Unfortunately, Kate is diagnosed with cancer, and George insists that Ellen move home and care for her mother.
It is through her role as reluctant caregiver that Ellen is finally able to see her mother as a complete person, someone with gifts and talents and an underappreciated role not only in her daughter’s life but in society as a whole. While Kate does not bask in the same spotlight her husband enjoys, her life is full and in many ways more authentic than that of her spouse. The scales also fall from Ellen’s eyes in regards to her father; he is, as we all are, a fundamentally flawed human being who cannot face the fact that his wife—his one true thing—is going to die. In time, Ellen realizes that the relationship between her mother and father is symbiotic, and in no way is Kate’s life less valuable than that of her spouse. Ellen learns to value her mother and, just as importantly, her mother’s choices in life.
Both of these stories address the journeys we undertake when someone we love dies. They are about love, and human frailty, human imperfection, and the fires in which we are all tried. While far from lighthearted viewing, they resonate with us because they embrace what we all must face: everyone loses people that they don’t know how to live without.
Pass me the popcorn–and maybe a handkerchief.
Both of these movies are available through Netflix; they and the novels upon which they are based are also available through the Seattle Public Library.