Why “Ordinary People” Is an Extraordinary Film

Ordinary People Movie Poster

Ordinary People, a film which deals with mental illness and the disintegration of an upscale American family, debuted in 1980.

I watched Ordinary People, one of my favorite movies, last night on Retroplex. This extraordinary film marked the director’s debut of Robert Redford and resulted in a well-deserved Oscar for Timothy Hutton, who was scarcely 20 at the time. The music score was excellent, the plot brilliant in its simplicity, and the actors – Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsh and Timothy Hutton – perfectly cast.

Yes, in many respects, it deals with monumentally depressing themes: the fatal accident of a beloved son; the attempted suicide of the younger son, who survived the accident; and, ultimately, the disintegration of an upper-middle-class family who, in terms of looks, education, and sophistication seemed, by all outward appearances, to be blessed beyond measure.  But it also deals with uplifting themes: self-discovery, personal growth, courage, and forgiveness.

Mental illness was still something of a taboo subject way back in 1980 when the movie debuted, especially among Protestant middle-class Americans, such as the Jarrett family depicted in the film, and psychiatry was regarded by millions of Americans as a dubious, if not black, art.

That is why Ordinary People is such an extraordinary film. It drove home several essential truths about mental illness and recovery: first, that mental illness and human tragedy touch everyone, even those who appear to be the most attractive affluent and well-integrated among us; second, that people who seek counseling tend to be the sanest and most decent among us – a fact poignantly depicted by Hutton (Conrad Jarrett) in the film; third, that recovery typically calls for multiple acts of forgiveness and a willingness to accept realities that are entirely beyond one’s control; and, fourth, and most important of all, that subjecting oneself to counseling requires a supreme act of personal courage and a willingness to question patterns of thinking and behaviors that were previously regarded as acceptable, if not sacrosanct.


About Jim Langcuster

A Southern late-Baby Boomer whose post-retirement focus is on building a post-racial, post-Confederate Southern regional identity. If the election of 2016 underscored one thing, it is that this country is intractably divided and that radical devolution of power to localities and states is the only way to save the American Union.
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2 Responses to Why “Ordinary People” Is an Extraordinary Film

  1. Mike says:

    That movie was the reason the pianist played Pachelbel’s Canon at my wedding. It’s a magical piece.

    • MissionExtension says:

      Yeah, it’s a remarkable composition. It’s interesting: I really thought that this film would launch Timothy Hutton as a major star. Of course, it didn’t, but that is one of those ironies of film history that is just as interesting.

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