Writer Norman Maclean’s autobiographical story of growing up in Montana with his brother Paul begins, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
Their Presbyterian minister father taught Norman and his brother Paul schoolwork, religion, and fishing as though they were all one subject. He was strict and thorough in all of those lessons. Reverand Mclean believed that no one who did not know how to fish properly should be permitted to disgrace a fish by catching it. He used a metronome to time their four-count stroke between the positions of ten o’clock and two o’clock.
Norman, though more sober, loved the wild streak in Paul that made him “tougher than any man alive” but feared that it would destroy him. And it did. While Norman becomes a professor of English literature and falls in love with Jessie Burns (Emily Lloyd), Paul becomes a reporter and gets into trouble drinking and gambling. Norman is called by the police to get Paul out of jail, and ultimately, he is called again when Paul is killed.
One of the tragic realizations of growing up is that you can love someone without being able to understand or save them. Like Norman, Jessie has a brother who is self-destructive, though his part of the story is played more for comedy. In today’s terms, Jessie’s mother would be considered an enabler because she does not impose any limits on her son, and does not insist that he recognize the consequences of his behavior.
Parents should know that the movie has some mature material, including family tragedy, alcohol abuse, a sexual situation (nudity), and prostitutes. A Native American woman is insulted by bigots.
Families who see this movie should discuss what they would do in Norman’s position. What would you have said to Paul? When? Why didn’t Norman say those things? If you were Jessie, what would you say to Neal? Why was it important to have Neal’s story in the movie? What does Norman mean when he says that his father saw no difference between religion and flyfishing?
Director Redford also addresses the theme of loving families who do not communicate pain well, with one member of the family suffering the consequences in two other movies, “Ordinary People” and “Quiz Show.”