One True Thing Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Our parents are never real people to us. They are... Achilles' heels, dim nightmares, vocal tics, bad noses, hot tears... all handed down and stuck us with them.

Author Anna Quindlen

One True Thing

Back in early 1997, I remember being in a study room at the University of Toronto's business school, preparing a negotiation case with one of my colleagues. The final member of our negotiation group, a good friend of mine who worked as a product manager in the consumer packaged goods industry, arrived a few minutes late. She looked tired, and not long after settling in, she became very distraught. Before excusing herself, she wiped the tears from her face and mentioned that she had spent the entire night at the hospital with her grandmother, who had exhibited the signs of a heart attack. Though her grandmother's condition was stable, the incident had been very distressing for her. Since that day, I had never thought much of what happened that day, or the emotional turmoil that my friend had endured. But after watching "One True Thing", I can now better appreciate the things that were going through her mind that day, and the strength that she showed in the face of such austere circumstances.

Where's Mom?
They're going to have to keep her overnight. They're going to have to do surgery.

It is the fall of 1987, and Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger of "Jerry Maguire") is a Harvard graduate who has taken a position as a reporter for the prestigious 'New York' magazine. The career of this very pragmatic young woman is on the fast track, and she is certain to make some big waves with an investigative piece on a scandal-tainted senator. However, while she is home for the weekend to celebrate her father's birthday, Ellen's life is thrown upside down after receiving news that her mother is about to undergo surgery for cancer.

Jesus Christ... you've got a Harvard education, but where is your heart?
Renee Zellweger

Torn between her familial obligations and her career, Ellen heads back to her hometown of Langhorne to care for her ailing mother, leaving behind her career and boyfriend in New York. To her chagrin, her parents are exactly the way she remembered them from childhood. Though she loves her parents dearly, she finds it extremely difficult to be in the same room with them. Her mother Kate (Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep), is full of energy and finds pleasure in seemingly frivolous pursuits. On the other hand, her father George (William Hurt of "Dark City") is a very learned and practical man who remains emotionally-aloof from his family. While Ellen has always been more like her father, approaching every situation calmly and analytically, her younger brother Brian (Tom Everett Scott of "That Thing You Do") takes after his mother-- full of spunk and subject to sporadic bursts of unbridled emotion. Not surprisingly, the haphazard mix of personalities living under the same roof results in many moments of discord.

You really think someone would come in here and say their mother has cancer, for a promotion?
Ellen... this is New York.

However, as the fall turns into winter, Ellen slowly rediscovers who her parents are, finally seeing them through the eyes of an adult. Both Kate and George are not the people Ellen thought they were, and she begins to comprehend the nature of the relationship between the two seemingly clashing personalities. She finds herself drawn to her mother, to whom she was never close to, and finally sees the wisdom and compassion behind her trifling pursuits of bake sales, Christmas tree decorating, and country drives. Meanwhile, Ellen also becomes increasingly repulsed by her father, who not only continues about his daily routine as though nothing is wrong, but is believed to be having an extra-marital affair.

The last thing I wanted to do was live my mother's life, and that's exactly what I was doing.
Meryl Streep

"One True Thing" successfully captures the dramatic core of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anna Quindlan's 1995 novel-- the difficulties for parents and children to understand one another. It is a sweet and sentimental examination of the dynamics of parent-child relationships, and the struggle between matters of the heart and the head. The contrast between the two generations of women is sharply drawn by screenwriter Karen Croner's well-written script. Whereas Ellen is driven by her ambition and is primarily concerned about her own well-being, Kate is content with her homemaker life and is more concerned about the well-being of her family and friends. As the film progresses, Ellen begins growing in ways she did not expect, and comes to understand how truly strong and compassionate a woman her mother is. It is no coincidence that the movie is set in the fall of 1987-- it was in October of that year that the greedy Eighties came to an unexpected halt with Black Monday. In a similar fashion, Ellen's spirit, having been long suppressed by more worldly concerns, also finds a sense of renewal.

Your mother needs someone she can be open with about her pain.
She can be open about it with me.
Can she?

On the surface, "One True Thing" seems to have the trappings of a made-for-TV movie, or seems to be nothing more than a small-scale family drama. However, the material and lensing is handled so subtly and adeptly by director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress") that you cannot help but be drawn into the lives of the on-screen personalities. A scene that would truly exemplify his talent would be an unforgettably poignant Christmas scene in the town square-- Franklin finds the right blend of irony, subtext, and emotion for this truly moving scene. Though the pacing is slow, particularly in the first act, Franklin keeps the audience interest up with a suspense-generating series of intercuts with Ellen being questioned by a District Attorney on the circumstances surrounding a suspicious death.

You know how your dad always says 'less is more'? Well, I say 'more is more'.

Zellweger demonstrates considerable range and screen presence in this film, even outdoing her breakthrough effort in "Jerry Maguire". The film is essentially carried by the strength of her performance, as it is her impatience and hapless predicament that the audience identifies with most strongly. Of course, this in no way undermines the strength of Streep's performance, who convincingly portrays a woman unable to share her pain but remains strong despite the sickness that is ravaging her body. Finally, Hurt acquits himself nicely as the aloof-yet-troubled George, who is not only unable to express himself emotionally, but is desperately trying to keep his ordered life from falling apart.

You have taken sabbaticals for the Great American Novel... why can't you take one for Mom?!!

"One True Thing" is compelling character study and heart-rending drama. Eloquently-written, brilliantly-handled, and superbly-acted, this beautiful and insightful film is one of the best of the year. It is very rare for a film like this to come along.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

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