A presumably healthy family begins to implode on itself as tragedy strikes not once but twice. The Jarret family finds their lives turned upside down in the movie “Ordinary People”. A film that depicts an upper middle class family’s inability to cope with the loss of a loved one. A boating accident, near their home in Lake Forrest, Illinois, takes the life of the oldest son Buck, and unveils the vulnerabilities of the family. Instead of pulling together in a time of grief, Calvin, Beth, and their remaining son Conrad fail to effectively communicate with each other the effects of Buck’s death.
It’s the elephant in the room that adds mounting stress to everyone in the family. Conrad, who is overwhelmed with guilt, attempts suicide a few months following the accident of his brother which only compounds the family’s situation. Beth never forgives Conrad for his suicide attempt and he cannot forgive her for her limited love towards him. Calvin is stuck in between the two trying to bridge the gap of their relationship. He is alienated by both Beth and Conrad who keep their grief for Buck to themselves. Buck’s untimely death also forces the family members to reevaluate their identity.
Conrad who has been living in Buck’s shadow must now create his own identity. Calvin losing the connection to Beth and Conrad is forced to discover why he feels cut off from the family. Beth who held Buck on a high pedestal as a representation of her self-worth now has that ripped away and her very soul is put into conflict with itself. Conrad, Calvin, and Beth must find a way to deal with Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide in order to move forward as a family. Buck, although not an actual character in the film, influences the remaining family members.
He was an above average athlete with trophies, awards, and plaques fill his shelves and walls for hockey, equestrian, baseball, and swimming. He was viewed as the popular kid who was like by everyone. A son that could do no wrong and possessed a no fear, sail into the storm mentality. His death initiates the Jarrett’s tail spin into disaster. Conrad still not able to face his feelings about the accident shall the telltale signs of PTSD. He has nightmares, problems sleeping, anxiety, as well as a loss of motivation throughout the beginning of the film.
He must put a great deal of effort to begin each day. All of this is because by the guilt he feels, which can be describes as Survivor’s guilt. Conrad feels guilty for surviving the accident while Buck who was stronger, more popular, and more favored by his mother did not. This guilt is the reason for his pain, suffering, and self-punishment. He is punishing himself for still being alive, and he becomes emotionally withdrawn with no one to reach out to especially at home. Conrad does get flustered from time to time but is still able to display his wit and sense of humor.
Beth does not play the traditional female gender role of the compassionate caring mother but the role of decision maker who uses control and power to maintain the family structure in a way she sees fit. Beth did not land here by chance. Instead it was by careful design from someone who shares an identical family role- Beth’s mother. Her personality is built on the foundation of order, structure, control, and power. She sees herself as a strong, independent, and self-assuring person. These characteristics give her what she desires most, the approval of her peers.
She would do anything to keep up status in her social circle. She has a sense of self-importance and the family would fall apart without her in charge. Beth’s identity has been shaped and molded in her mother’s image. She instills these characteristic early in Beth’s childhood. Perhaps with the best intentions of a being a parent or merely the greed to her self-image, Beth’s mother passes down her dominate sense of control and power so one day Beth’s can fulfil this role in her own family. A good legacy to reflect back on her mother one day. This method of child rearing does come with an unforeseen price.
As Beth is raised to act, think, and even feel the way her mother does, she is essentially stripped Beth of her childhood identity and replaces it with that of her own. Never allowed to stray outside the boundaries of her mother’s ideals, Beth has an underdeveloped sense of self. She know owns her mother’s behavior, but Buck’s death challenges her very identity. Beth’s control and order quickly turns into chaos. Calvin takes on the complimentary role as the caregiver who proves support to the family. He carries a sense of responsibility for the well-being of his family.
This is the reason why he becomes a lawyer, to provide for his family. Calvin is similar to Beth’s father. They are not one to inject conflict or create waves with the family or anyone for that matter. They take a more passive approach less they be berated by the lady of the house. Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt leaves Calvin with a feeling of inadequacy in his family role. He also feels guilty for “allowing” these events to occur. His sense of worth is further alienated in that Beth and Conrad do not connect with him on an emotional level.
The relationship between Calvin and Beth appear to be normal. Beth gives Calvin some loving affection and Calvin reciprocates. Despite the tragedies they still have passion for each other. Upon arriving at the house the gender role reversal reveals itself. Beth walks right past Conrad’s door without even a thought of his well-being. Calvin on the other hand playing the tender caring role checks up on Conrad. Calvin is a perceptive person and realizes that Conrad is not sleeping well and still in turmoil from the recent events. He brings up the help of a psychiatrist and to “Stick to the plan”.
Referring to an earlier discussion that if Conrad does not feel improvement, he would seek out professional help. Conrad pushes back on the idea and Calvin retreats from the conversation. Calvin continues to bed and makes love to his wife. Intimacy is a significant sign a healthy relationship that is still present between them. At breakfast Beth prepares Conrad’s favorite dish. A loving gesture that is unwanted due to Conrad’s lack of appetite. Beth takes this as a personal rejection and punishes Conrad by swiftly discards the dish down the disposal. Underneath the surface lies a bit more than a simple rejection.
Beth even with her gesture she does not inquire to the state of Conrad’s health. Conrad sees this as Beth not willing to forgive him for the death of Buck and more importantly his suicide attempt. How dare he smear his “indignity” on her tile and carpet? She perceives his suicide attempt as a personal attack rather than a cry for help. Conrad’s fail to acknowledge his mother’s effort shows us he cannot forgive her for her limitations toward him. All of this is processed internally as neither one has the courage to share their feelings, creating more animosity between them.
At dinner Beth serves punishment for dessert as she flexes her matriarchal power by suggesting to Conrad that she will sign him up for tennis matches and reminding Calvin of his husbandry duty to attend the gathering at the Murray’s house. Neither one of them are thrilled about and realizes they have crossed an unspoken line. Conrad is picked up for school by Phil along with two other members of the swim team. Phil is a distant friend at best. He likely did not visit Conrad at the hospital. He is not someone Conrad feels confident to confide in.
Phil is in Conrad’s corner though. He defends against Stillman’s (teammate) observation that Conrad is repeating his junior year of classes. Phil cannot begin to understand what Conrad is going through but tries to be a friend, although he doesn’t go out of his way to do so. During the ride Conrad has a flashback, he integrates the passing train as a funeral procession passing the headstones of a graveyard on the way to Buck’s gravesite. Invoking the feeling of why him and not me. In class, Conrad is asked a question from a piece of literature they are studying.
The question posed is whether a character is “powerless in the grip of circumstance or that he could have helped himself”. Conrad staring outside the window choses the “powerless” to answer the question. He chooses that not because it may be the correct answer, but because he feels powerless in his current struggle. He has a moment of reflection on the answer he just gave as the class discussion continues. It this moment he decides to adhere to his promise and contact Dr. Berger for help. The first appointment with Dr. Berger is a probing session.
He is methodical with his approach, knowing when to push, when to pull, and when to give space. Conrad is clearly uncomfortable and resistant in the first session. He does not open up to just anyone even by recently being under the care of another psychologist. Conrad says he is there to have “more control”. Dr. Berger knows it’s not control Conrad needs but to forgive himself. As the sessions continue, Dr. Berger makes efforts to get Conrad in touch with his feelings and bring them to the surface. Dr. Berger knows the struggle to recovery means things will get worse for Conrad before they get better.
Beth and Calvin attend the party at the Murray’s. Beth makes her round and socializes with several different groups. The social butterfly, she is right at home rubbing elbows and gossiping with her peers. Calvin meanwhile doesn’t have an agenda just killing time in between drinks. Calvin only gets Beth’s attention when he begins to talk about Conrad seeing a doctor. Beth sees this as a blow against her image especially in front of her peers. She immediately walks over and changes the subject. Later, she berates him in the car for discussing personal family affairs in public with her friends.
This further drives a wedge between the couple as Calvin wants to help Conrad reach his feelings and Beth just want to move on. Jeannine is a new to the area and takes and interest in Conrad. She is open-minded and kind hearted and not affected by the troubles of his recent past. She is able to relate to Conrad because she was not around when buck was alive to compare him to Buck and she does not judge Conrad also having a troubled past. Conrad sees Jeannine as a means to a “normal” life. Through Jeannie he is able to begin to form his own identity outside of Buck’s shadow. Karen is Conrad’s friend from the hospital.
They remember the hospital very different. Conrad is fond of the hospital while Karen sees it as a bad place, a kind of punishment. It is one of the few places Conrad was able to open up and share his feelings with other people. Karen tries to tell Conrad the “real world” is different from the hospital, that life out here is different than in the hospital. Karen is handling herself on her own without any professional help as advised by her father. She is not really well though as at the end of the conversation she seems to be trying to convince herself that this will be the best year ever.
In a later session with Dr. Berger, his approach to get Conrad to open up is very methodical. He switches between pushing Conrad’s buttons to letting giving him time to process. Dr. Berger maintain a calmness about him while confronting Conrad on his feelings. In this way, Dr. Berger shows Conrad the dynamic of a healthy relationship. During this session Conrad realizes that holding feeling back is worse than expressing them. Dr. Berger smirks as Conrad ends an outburst, realizing he is making progress. The visit to the grandparents shows the almost identical nature of Beth and her mother.
The apple has not fallen far from the tree. Her mother barking commands at her father, controlling him like a puppet master. The awkwardness of the relationship between Beth and Conrad is revealed as Beth avoids having her picture taken with Conrad. She has not forgiving him for the accident or his suicide attempt and cannot stand to share a “moment” with him. Conrad lashes out as his frustration with her limited ability to love him boils over. Neither one can express their feelings to each other so the mother and son relationship continue to suffer for it.
Later in the kitchen, Beth’s mother walks in to Beth holding two pieces of a plate that she broke. Beth repeatedly saying tells her mother she can fix it. Beth’s identity is represented here by these two plates. The one side is her underdeveloped childhood emotional state yearning to come out, and the other is her current self, forged from years of discipline from her mother. Buck’s death has fractured an emotional bond with her favored son, and apart of who she is has dies with him. Beth after having her image tainted again by Conrad when finding the news about him quitting the swim team confronts him.
Conrad then lashes out at his mother, suggesting that she only cares about him because of how it might impact her reputation. Calvin and Beth’s reactions to Conrad’s outburst are very indicative of their different parenting styles. Calvin wants to follow Conrad to his room and talk with him. Beth gets upset with Calvin. She feels as if Conrad is manipulating them, and that, because Conrad is the one who has done something wrong, Calvin should not be the one to apologize. This event spreads the couples’ relationship further still. In another session with Dr.
Berger, Conrad realizes that is it he who cannot forgive himself for his suicide attempt. This allows Conrad to understand that Beth has limitation with the way she loves him and to forgive her for that. This is a big breakthrough for Conrad and allows him to work through his grief for Buck and try to make peace with Beth. Able to forgive himself, Conrad begins to reconnect and express his feelings. After being harassed his former swim teammate Conrad attacks him. He no longer needs to bottle it up anymore though this was not a positive way to express it.
He is also able to express to Phil why he has been so distant all this time. That is was not Phil but his association with Buck that hurts too much to bare. Phil understands there is nothing he can do and simply walks away. Conrad reaches out to Karen in a hope to talk, but finds out she has killed herself. This brings Conrad face to face with Buck’s death. He calls Dr. Berger in the late hour in hopes of working through all of his pain. In this meeting, Conrad is able to shift the blame of Buck’s death from himself to Buck. Conrad blames himself because someone had to be blamed and Conrad was the one, the one who survived.
He is able to focus in the here and now and being alive is a good thing. Without Dr. Berger and his help Conrad may not have been able to push through Karen’s death. But now he is able to grief for Buck and be able finally move on with his life. He does this by reaching out to Jeannine in the hopes of forming a successful relationship. On vacation on the golf course, Calvin and Beth get into an argument over how Calvin treats Conrad. She is angry that he is so focused on Conrad and reveals how angry she is at Conrad. She feels like his suicide attempt was intentionally vicious and directed at her.
Calvin defending Conrad tries to explain that Conrad did it to himself, not to her, but Beth feels like it was directed at her. Her outburst makes it clear that she will never be able to forgive Conrad, and also clear that Calvin will never let go of Conrad. When they return home Calvin realizes that Beth is not the same person he once knew. Calvin sees the flaws in Beth that she is not a “giving” person. He realizes Beth is unable to cope without life being neat and tidy. Beth, unwilling to deal with her emotions packs her bags and leaves for Houston.
Conrad meets Calvin in the back yard. Conrad begins to blame himself for the Beth’s departure. Calvin allows himself to get angry at Conrad. Happy that his father is no longer being over cautious of him. This in turn allows for a resolution of the relationship between father and son. In the end the family has survived, but not without a casualty. Beth, unwilling and unable to deal with Buck’s death cannot process her grief. Her mother’s influence holds strong as she is inflexible to change herself. She has now lost control and order of her family, so she retreats to stay with her brother.
Calvin and Conrad have come through changed men. Calvin understands that he can be there for Conrad but also needs to hold him accountable as well. Calvin is now able to reconnect with his son on an emotional level. Conrad no longer feels guilty over Buck’s death and his suicide attempt. He is able to move on with his life. He is now closer to his father and he is also becoming his own person. Pursuing a relationship and future with Jeannine. His confidence continues to grow each day. Life will never be the same as they become ordinary people.