Ordinary People (1980)

I’ve been trying to figure out what the title is supposed to mean.  Rich people:  they’re just like us!  Or is it Depressed people:  they’re just like us!  Somebody here is ordinary, and it sure as hell isn’t me.

If they mean the latter, though, they’re right.  One of the most basic factoids I’ve learned in my time working in the mental health field is that 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.  That’s one person in the average family, or at least one person among a group of friends.  I doubt this is a statistic that has changed significantly throughout modern history, so what it means is that for a long time people have pretended that a pretty significant condition in human society didn’t exist.  Honestly?  Based on my social circle, as limited and homogenous as it is, I would put that number a lot higher.

Depression is ordinary, in the sense that it is not unusual at all.

If we’re doing a historical study of mental health throughout history, this might be a turning point.  Whereas just a few years earlier, we saw the Institution – the mental patient who is not even permitted to interact with regular society for their (or society’s) safety – now we see the other side of mental illness.  The kid from a respectable family who tries to kill himself.

We come into the story a year after the older brother of a teenage boy has died, and find a family unable to communicate.  They’ve grown apart, disjointed now that the glue that once kept them close has vanished.  Conrad, the brother left behind, just spent four months as an inpatient after a suicide attempt, and is now pretending he’s all better, despite a complete lack of follow-up care (probably all-too-common even today, but a bit unnerving to my mind).  Clearly, he’s still not quite back to normal, despite trying to resume his regular school activities, like swim team.  He can’t even stand in the same room with his mom.  If you’ve ever wondered how awkward a conversation with your mom could be, just compare any of yours to a few choice scenes in this film.

I really liked the psychiatrist in this film.  Rather than seeming to be a patient’s nemesis, whose only goal is set unbreakable rules for the powerless patient to follow, this shrink is an ally.  It feels more like the sort of psychiatrist that I’m familiar with, one who challenges the patient’s perspective and guides her toward new insight and progress.  Though I’ve never witnessed my boss properly in session with a patient, I could see something of him in this portrayal.  The psychiatrist here is almost like the Truth Teller or a Shakespearean holy fool or something like that, the one person who can speak honest, hard truths.

Now that I’ve made my way through a good chunk of movies from each decade, I’m starting to get a feel for the trends in different time periods.  The eighties (and late seventies, too) were definitely a time of ponderous films, kind of slow-paced and serious.  About Real Issues.  Gone were the attempts to simply replicate the bombastic stage shows with dancing ladies in days of yore.  I think in a way we’re still in this era of film-making – that, along with the blockbuster comic book movies, which takes over for the Westerns of the past.  What will come next?


Theme:  Mental health

Diagnosis:  Suicide attempt

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Shrinks: they’re just like us!


One response

  1. Pingback: Meta-post: The Ranking | Year of the Oscar

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