Plot: Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) has returned home after four months in a mental hospital. He tried to kill himself following a tragic boating accident with his brother, Bucky, who drowned. He is trying to find a way to fit in, both at home and at school. His father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), tries to reach out to him, but is afraid of saying the wrong thing, and is shy about his own emotions. His mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), is uncomfortable with emotions and with anything else that might be “messy” or hard to control.
After some hesitation, Conrad seeks out Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), a psychiatrist recommended to him when he left the hospital, telling him that he is seeking “control.” Berger warns him that control is tough to achieve, but says he will do what he can. He advises Conrad to start from the outside, work on his actions and let the feelings follow.
Conrad begins to reach out to a sympathetic girl at school, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). He makes contact with Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend from his hospital stay, who seems to have “control,” to be busy with friends and activities and sure of herself. He is devastated when he tries to call her again, and hears that she has killed herself. He calls Berger in the middle of the night, and insists on seeing him. He relinquishes what he thinks of as “control” to confess to Berger — and himself — that he can’t forgive himself for surviving when his brother died, that he feels guilty and unworthy.
Calvin begins to realize that Beth’s unwillingness to connect to her own emotions or anyone else’s is suffocating the family. They had had the appearance of closeness, but the tragedy revealed how superficial it was. Their relationship unravels quickly, and she leaves, as Cal and Conrad begin to share their feelings.
Discussion: This is a movie about emotional honesty, about the courage and emotional vocabulary that are necessary for the connections and intimacy we need to be able to survive challenges like the tragedy faced by this family. Berger says, “If you can’t feel pain, then you’re not going to feel anything else, either.” The characters represent a wide variety of approaches and abilities to emotional openness and “control.” Conrad and Calvin are both groping their way toward a better understanding of themselves and others and the ability to communicate.
Beth does not want to try. She is by no means an ogre. Indeed, it is clear that the director and writer of the movie feel sorry for her. She has chosen emptiness she can control rather than “messy” feelings. Beth preferred Bucky to Conrad because Bucky’s easy confidence did not place any emotional demands on her. Conrad says, “I can’t talk to her! The way she looks at me! She hates me!” What Conrad feels as rejection is really Beth’s fear that his sensitivity and vulnerability will put demands on her that she can’t or won’t be able to respond to. She can’t bear the thought that she might somehow be responsible for Conrad’s pain, while Calvin is willing to confront that issue in order to be able to help Conrad.
Jeannine at first pulls back from Conrad’s attempt to connect with her by telling her the truth about himself, but then apologizes. She wants to understand him; it was just that at first she did not know how to respond, so retreated into the more comfortable and familiar environment of joking around. In contrast, Karen, who seems to have so much “control” and goes to elaborate pains to persuade Conrad that she is doing fine, is unable to cope.
Teenagers may know of someone who has attempted suicide, or of someone who has been successful. This movie provides an opportunity to discuss what led Conrad and Karen to consider it, how the perspective of a person about his own worth is very different from that of those around him, and what the other options are for people who are deeply depressed. Questions for Kids:
· Why is control so important to Conrad? Is it important to Beth and Calvin, too?
· What do you think of Berger’s advice about starting from the outside?
· How does Berger help Conrad? How does Jeannine help him?
· Why does he quit the swim team? Why doesn’t he tell his parents?
· How do you feel about Beth? Do you dislike her or feel sorry for her or both? Why is it so hard for her to give her husband and son what they feel they need?
Connections: This film received Oscars for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton). It also popularized the lovely “Canon” by Pachelbel. Viewers of “Nick at Nite” will recognize Mary Tyler Moore from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”