Log Line

A teenage boy attempts to find internal peace and resolution after a suicide attempt brought on, in part, by the guilt of surviving a boating accident that took the life of his brother.

Overview

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Alvin Sargent, Judith Guest

Director(s): Robert Redford

Production Co.(s): Paramount Pictures; Wildwood Enterprises

Adapted from: Ordinary People (Novel) by Judith Guest (© 1976)

In Ordinary People, the main character, Conrad, is a high school senior who has returned recently to live with his parents in their upscale suburban home after spending four months in a mental hospital, following a suicide attempt. Although the outward trappings of his life suggest that he is progressing in his return to "normalcy" after the hospital stay, it is clear from the start that the internal conflicts that led to the suicide attempt still roil inside him, infecting him with a dangerous depression that haunts both his waking and sleeping lives.

The world that Conrad is attempting to reenter is populated by friends and acquaintances, but its most significant denizens are his successful tax-accountant father, Calvin, and housewife mother, Beth—whose attitudes and approaches to his recovery differ markedly from each other. While Calvin expresses a level of patience and support that suggests a Pollyanna-ish inability to recognize the internal family conflicts that might be contributing to Conrad's angst, Beth maintains a stern and unsympathetic emotional distance, mostly by busying herself with the trivial concerns related to maintaining an upscale suburban life.

The family may be said to include, as well, a significant unseen member in the person of Conrad's late brother, Buck, who died in a two-person boating accident that Conrad survived—an event the particulars of which Conrad seems condemned to replay repeatedly in his mind, especially in his dreams.

In an attempt to gain internal peace and find solace from the terror of the dreams, Conrad seeks out the help of a psychologist, Dr. Tyrone Berger—a move that is applauded by Calvin and condemned by Beth, who appears to be more concerned with what their friends will think (about the psychologist) than she is with Conrad's well-being. And although Conrad approaches the psychology sessions at first with a defiant reticence, they soon begin to do their work inside him, revealing to him important insights about his feelings—especially with respect to his parents, his brother, and the boating accident—and paving the way to the peace that he seeks.

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