Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a 42-year-old man who has lost touch with anything that made him feel alive. His wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a realtor, so highly focused that she is clenched. His daughter Jane (Thora Birch) is a sullen teenager. Both barely disguise their contempt for him, which he accepts as his due. All three members of the family are desperately unhappy, but they have no way to connect to each other or make any change.
One night, at a high school basketball game, Lester sees a vision that transforms him. Angela (Mena Suvari) performs in a pom-pom routine with Jane. Lester is overcome by her youth and beauty, and for the first time in his memory, she gives him a goal. He wants to make love to her.
He quits his job, begins to work out, smokes some very expensive marijuana supplied by the teenage boy next door, and buys the red Firebird he dreamed of back when he was passionate about his dreams. The boy next door (Wes Bentley) uses the money he makes from selling drugs to buy video equipment, with which he films everything he sees, especially Jane.
Lester, who narrates the film, informs us at the beginning that he will be dead by the end. As in the classic Hemingway short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” Lester becomes passionate and vital at last, which is unsettling to everyone around him.
Teens are likely to consider this movie profound in the way that their parents considered “The Graduate” profound. Lester, like Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock, is trying to get away from “plastics.” Carolyn has buried her feelings with motivational tapes, a $4000 sofa, and mantras like, “I WILL sell this house today!” Lester has escaped from a crushing feeling of inauthenticity by becoming numb. By telling the truth to himself and those around him he is like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” saying that the suburban dream is empty and that they will not allow themselves to be ordinary. And, most important, the teens are the real heroes of the movie, having already realized that the dream is empty. What they may not realize is that the real tragedy of Lester and Carolyn is that they once knew that, too, and it did not prevent them from losing themselves.
Parents should know that the movie’s rating comes from graphic, bloody violence (including child abuse), extremely raw language, nudity, sex (including teen sex), and drug use that is very positively portrayed. Parents of teens who see the movie may want to discuss the sexual behavior of the teenagers it portrays. One who relishes her sexual power and enjoys telling her friends the lurid details is revealed to be a virgin. Another is saving for highly unnecessary breast augmentation surgery. The boy with the camera is a voyeur. The girl he spies on is captivated by his attention. Like many of the characters in the movie, she is only able to feel real when she is perceived by others. She is painfully aware that her parents do not really look at her. This movie is not for most teens, but those who do see it should use it as a way to begin a conversation about the ways that families communicate, the choices we make about sex and drugs, and the ways that we find meaning in a complicated world.