It was this film that influenced me to become a counselor. This post is one most personal pieces I've published publicly and details many of the things I've dealt with in my own life. I highly recommend this film to anyone who’s experienced deep loss.
When I was in seminary several years ago, I was going to therapy. During one of our sessions, my counselor recommended a movie I had never heard of before. I wrote the title down and actually forgot about it for a couple months. One random day its title, Ordinary People flashed back into my memory. I decided to look for it on Netflix and watched it all the way through.
The movie was dated, yet intense and unlike any film I had ever seen. Although the circumstances in the story were not exactly like those in own life, the emotions of the characters struck me right to the core. I’ve seen the movie over fifty times since then and no other film I’ve come across has touched me as deeply as this one.
The story is set in Lake Forest, Illinois—an affluent neighborhood outside of Chicago. The Jarretts are a well-to do family who suffer a tragedy when their oldest son drowns in a boating accident. The family tries their best to move on and the story focuses primarily on Conrad, the younger son, as he tries to cope with the loss of his brother. Unable to bear the guilt, anger, and sorrow that accompany grief, Conrad makes a serious attempt on his life. He spends several months in a mental hospital and finally is allowed to return home. This is actually where the film begins and these preceding events are not revealed until later.
I relate so much with Conrad as he struggles with isolation, despair and the feeling of being misunderstood by almost everyone around him. His father is unable to connect with him and his mother tries repression, avoiding the issue altogether. What appears as an antagonist relationship between mother and son is actually a complex denial over the loss that affected both of them.
My life has been marked by intense loss as I witnessed the unraveling and death of my own family—events that were beyond my control. As a result, I tried to grow up too quickly in order to move past the pain. In reality, it paralyzed a part of me—the part that is vulnerable and open with other people.
In the movie, all is not left to desolation. Conrad agrees to see a therapist and begins to work on his anger and grief. With the support of his therapist and eventual girlfriend, Jeanine, Conrad is able to get in touch with his emotions and express his frustrations and hurt. His father is shaken by his son’s transformation and begins to break down as well. Beth, his mother, tries to remain steadfast in her repression. She keeps a stiff upper lip, regardless of the consequences and how it affects others.
By the end of the film, Conrad has worked through the deepest of his most dark and intense emotions regarding the loss of his brother. He regains a sense of direction and hope for his life. His father also begins to see below the surface. He confronts his wife, who is unable to bear the burden of reality and decides to leave. It’s a sad ending that also holds a sense of hope, showing the transformation of two of the three family members.
In my life, it has taken many years to truly mature into adulthood. I’ve faced my own grief, self-hatred and despair, and in the darkest of trials have held strong to my faith in God. Ordinary People is not a Christian film. In fact, the main character is an atheist. But the depiction of its characters is so real and very authentic. This is not a movie made by Walt Disney. There is no gospel scene where the main character accepts Christ. We are instead treated to an honest, vivid portrayal of a family’s struggle to move on amidst tragedy, even if the process is painful.
I figure that the film is named Ordinary People because it simply shows the hurt and pain that every human being goes through. It’s hard. It’s something we want to avoid—but it’s an inescapable factor of life that eventually brings greater healing, hope, and even joy. It is in my own journey that I’ve felt the presence of God in the most trying and dark circumstances. But that doesn’t make me extraordinary. I’m ordinary…an ordinary person…and that’s just fine with me.