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Ordinary People

Year: 1980
Studio: Paramount
Director: Robert Redford
Writer: Judith Guest/Alvin Sergent
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern

They're not ordinary people at all, they're very particular people instantly recognisable even to a kid born during the era depicted on another continent.

The reason I knew them instantly was because they were once so well represented in cinema – upwardly mobile, well-to-do whites with a beautiful house and economic certainty in the forested hills of upstate New York, but with tension from dark secrets because of past tragedy simmering underneath.

You know almost immediately at picture up that the dad will be a lawyer who wears cardigans on the weekend, the mum will do charity lunches and book drives while wearing the latest Saks Fifth Ave fashions and any kids will play Lacrosse while they contemplate Ivy League colleges. The elements are so distinctive it's almost a time capsule.

Parents Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) have very different relationships with their son Conrad (a pre-fame Timothy Hutton) after something terrible has happened amongst the motions of their affluent life.

Conrad is withdrawn and sullen most of the time, but we're not sure why. Calvin is overeager, leaping joyfully on any sign of spark from the boy while Beth seems not to be able to stand him, unable to even stay in the same room with him alone for too long.

To talk about what happened or what Conrad did afterwards would be to reveal too much if you don't know the story (even though it was as well known around the time it was out as the identity of the one who shot JR Ewing), but it's one of dozens of movies we see even today about families maintaining outward respectability while their core fractures because of some pain and resentment they're trying to bury.

It's also a kind of proto- Good Will Hunting as Conrad finds someone he can relate to and who challenges him in psychotherapist Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch), a gruff straight talker who doesn't indulge or judge Conrad like his parents do. And all the while he tries to come back to a semblance of life by slowly connecting with a girl at school who seems to be receptive (Elizabeth McGovern).

It's well made if a little televisual nowadays, and I gather made such a splash at the time because it was the debut directorial effort from a big star (Robert Redford). But two things particularly piqued my interest. First was the structure – there's no real beginning or end, we meet the family after the formative incident that's now threatening to destroy them, and we leave them right at what seems to be their darkest point, left wondering whether everyone will be okay.

I also couldn't work out what the Academy voters liked about Mary Tyler Moore's performance enough to give her the best actress Oscar. She played it very low key and understated, and I spent the whole time waiting for some earth-shattering emotional meltdown of the kind the Oscars love, but it never came. Maybe it was just such a different role from that of the perky heroine of the TV show everyone knew her from.

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