Ordinary People

Ever since I started telling people I run a blog about the portrayal of mental illness in film, there has been one movie people have recommended to me the most: Ordinary People. And, after watching through it the first time this weekend, I can see why! My only prior exposure to this movie was watching a few clips during my Direct Practice class of my first year of grad school — and even then, I could tell it was doing a lot of things right.

Ordinary People is a 1980 film about a family coming to terms with the death of their older son. Shortly into the movie, we learn that Conrad (Timothy Hutton), the younger brother of the late Buck, has been out of the hospital for a month after a serious suicide attempt. He has spent four months in the hospital and is now trying to adjust back to life at home, even though everything has changed.

Beth, Conrad, and Calvin. The not-so-happy family.

And it’s not just Conrad that we see adjusting. The parents, Calvin and Beth (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore), are struggling in their own ways to cope with recent events. On top of the death of their older son, their younger son attempted suicide and was hospitalized. Either of these events on their own would be a shock, but the fact that they happen so close together has clearly taken its toll on both of them.

Conrad, though reluctant, eventually goes to see a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), who hits probably every single one of the psychiatrist stereotypes. He’s foul-mouthed, abrupt, likes to ask the client “why” a whole bunch — he’s not a boring old shrink, he’s a Cool Shrink™. Think Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Despite this, the character does get a lot of things right: he asks (mostly) open-ended questions, confronts Conrad appropriately about the guilt he has about his brother’s death, and encourages him to pursue the goals that are important to him.

The movie does an excellent job of showing symptoms of depression (and probably PTSD) in Conrad’s life. He often wakes up from nightmares about the accident where he witnessed his brother’s death. He talks extensively about the guilt he feels about the accident, which Dr. Berger helps him work through. We see his agitation, his insomnia, his irritability, the ways in which he physically acts out. We hear his swim coach ask inappropriately if he’s “on tranquilizers” or if they gave him “shock therapy” in the hospital. Conrad’s suicide attempt is neither romanticized nor demonized: we see the scars, but we also understand the pain he’s experienced that led him to attempt to end his life.

After Dr. Berger wins Conrad’s trust, we see him help Conrad through a serious crisis (the completed suicide of a close friend he met while in the hospital), leading to a breakthrough in his treatment. Presumably, this is the moment where Conrad begins to heal, just as the film reaches its close.

Not your typical doctor-patient interaction, but in this scene, it feels appropriate and real.

One aspect of the film that I really want to dig into is Mary Tyler Moore’s portrayal of Beth. Her reputation as a “first class bitch,” as one charming IMDb reviewer phrased it, seems to be the collective opinion of her character as a whole. In fact, her performance is what heard the most about prior to watching the film, so I made sure to pay close attention to her.

First, a note about grief and bereavement: it’s complicated. For that very reason, it is very difficult to diagnose grief separately from a major depressive episode. And there’s a lot of debate as to whether the exclusion of grief/bereavement from the DSM 5 was a good call. I like to think this is because grief shows up for different people in different ways. What I would call a more “socially acceptable” version of grief is usually depicted like a depressive episode: lots of weeping, poor self-care, overwhelming sadness that leaks into every aspect of life.

However, grief can also be visions of the loved one who passed away, or hearing their voice. Grief can worsen a current illness, or be the last straw that induces another. Grief can cause people to use substances to cope, to shut off support from well-meaning loved ones, to challenge their beliefs about the afterlife, or to take their own life. Or all of the above. Or none of the above! The key here is that grief is not experienced the same way by all people.

Looking at Moore’s performance, it’s clear that Beth’s grief is not typical. She clams up and is unable to connect with Conrad (and many other characters note that this is not a new phenomenon). Her conversations with Conrad are awkward and stilted, and she parrots many incorrect beliefs about Conrad’s mental health treatment. She does not weep, unlike Conrad and Calvin. She repeatedly emphasizes her desire to keep things within the family — and we see where this perspective comes from when we meet Beth’s mother, who is similarly unsympathetic to Conrad’s plight. We see her desperately trying to maintain control in an environment where she has lost so much.

There are multiple scenes where Conrad and his mother, Beth, appear to be completely disconnected from one another.

Does her inability to show emotions in a way that we expect mean she’s a bitch? I don’t think so. Does it mean she’s a perfect character whose flaws and subsequent impact on the people around her are forgiven? Also no. It is clear that her dismissive nature harms her relationship with her son and her husband. But it is very interesting to me that a woman whose grief is not displayed in a way that society considers typical is automatically made out to be a bitch. And by “very interesting,” I mean “totally predictable.”

At one point, Conrad tells his father that the visits to the psychiatrist will be expensive, to which Calvin replies, “Don’t worry about the money.”As a soon-to-be social worker, I feel it’s important to note that cost is a huge factor that limits many folks from seeking mental health care. In 2015, North Carolina’s public mental health agencies lost $110 million, directly impacting the funds available to those with Medicaid or no insurance. And while there was an influx of money after the sale of land associated with the old Dorothea Dix hospital, there is still debate about where that money should go. While it’s fortunate that Conrad’s upper-middle class family does not have to worry about the cost of treatment, most seeking treatment are not so lucky. Additionally, as the country faces the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the loss of additional protections provided by the ACA to ensure mental health coverage is equal to physical health coverage seems inevitable.

There is so much more I could say about this movie and the state of mental health care in the U.S., but I’ll end it here. Ordinary People tells an important and timeless story about the complicating effects of mental illness on a family unit, and how different environmental factors can help or hurt the situation. I do appreciate that the title of this film (as well as the title of the novel on which the film is based) reminds us that these are ordinary people — they are everyday folks dealing with common issues that face many families across the globe. And realizing that trauma, grief, and mental illness are something that many people experience is a good first step to breaking down stigma.

Ordinary People (1980): ★★★★

If you have anything to add, a different interpretations of this movie, or suggestions for other movies I should cover, please comment below!