Dark Victory

Mother knows best: Renée Zellweger and Meryl Streep in Carl Franklin's One True Thing

One True Thing
area theaters

Set in the fall of 1987, this year's entry in the fucked-up-family-holidays movie tradition seems to model themes as dated as its fashions. One True Thing mourns the passing of the cheerful, white, upper-middle-class stay-at-home mom, who could simultaneously knit a sweater, bake a pie, organize a Halloween fest with her ladies auxiliary, and counsel a troubled child. When ambitious journalist Ellen (Renée Zellweger) returns home to care for her suddenly ailing mother Kate (Meryl Streep), she can't believe the extent of a housewife's unsung labor. Inevitably, Ellen comes to respect her mother's loving wisdom as much as--if not more than--the cool intellect of her professor father (William Hurt).

Call it Fables for Recovering Feminists, Part Infinity (or Hollywood Sickbed Rapprochement, Part Infinity Plus). It's the kind of mushy corrective lesson served up by liberal columnist Anna Quindlen (who wrote the novel behind this film) in the late '80s--instruction which, along with similar, if higher-proof, conservative cant, added up to a disturbingly fat book of footnotes called Backlash. What were those "hard" feminists thinking, to reject heroic, cookie-baking mothers?! Obviously, they had starved their "feminine" hearts trying to be men. "Go back home!" pundits urged working women--or destroy all things good and American.

So why did career woman and avowed feminist Meryl Streep choose to act out this story? And what inspired Carl Franklin, so empathetic with his multilayered female characters in Devil in a Blue Dress and One False Move, to direct? More relevantly, why should any intelligent person care? Well, to acknowledge, with Franklin, the last first: You should care because this is a radiant movie, elegantly photographed, probingly acted, and--at least for me--quite moving. You should care because its poignancy arises not just from the expected nostalgia, but also from an acute understanding of the rewards and costs of American family ideals.

Yes, Streep's Kate looks a bit of a saint: lovely, capable, accepting of her husband's peccadilloes, generous to her family and her community even as illness saps her emotional and physical reserves. She's also the sort of fussily maternal woman who, minutes before hosting a costume party, offers to whip up an outfit for her noncompliant daughter. It's no wonder Ellen has refused to cook, craft, or otherwise enter Kate's suffocating sphere. Father George has always been Ellen's idol, probably because he can and does leave Kate's castle: Franklin tends to show him arriving or exiting, a wandering bee not long in the home hive.

Streep's Kate first bobs into the film dressed up for her costume party as ruby-slippered Dorothy; we soon see that, as companions during her sickness, her family lacks for heart, mind, and nerve. Because the movie's setup demands that Ellen--and the viewer--learn to value mother more and father less, George undergoes more than his fair share of unpleasant character revelations. Yet Hurt's nuanced work and Franklin's judicious use of flashbacks keep George from becoming completely unsympathetic and thus just another mark of Kate's sacred martyrdom.

For her part, Zellweger does a fine job of conveying confusion, distress, and anger--and an interesting job, shall we say, of portraying an ambitious journalist. Her face is so round and her voice so teeny that I had to keep reminding myself that I actually know an ambitious journalist with a very round face and an impossibly teeny voice. Franklin's great gift, in his features and especially his HBO miniseries "Laurel Avenue," has been to communicate the terrible complexity of human beings and their relationships. One True Thing offers his least surprising characters yet: He's playing here with types--mainstream, commercial archetypes--that, given the race and class consciousness of his past films, you wouldn't expect him to have time for. It owes to his careful direction that these characters wiggle from their hardened carapaces and fly.

Near its end, the film includes a scene that in almost any other director's hands would've made me vomit: a snowy small-town square, filled with festive Christmas trees, wealthy white people, and the familiar notes of "Silent Night." But Franklin has observed the unpaid women's work that created the spectacle. He focuses now on the woman with a tumor poisoning her body. He watches the man viewing the scene with a sense of ownership mixed with loss, and a restless desire to leave. He catches the daughter weeping for her mother and for her inability to follow her.

And "Silent Night" now begins to sound like a funeral hymn--not just for Kate, but for an entire white fantasy of comfortably partitioned life, with its distant, God-like dad, saintly mother, and obedient offspring. (And that dark devil, lurking somewhere offscreen. Is it the director's in-joke that the movie describes Halloween with such devilish wit?) One True Thing allows this treasured dream its occasional, startling beauty. It bows to the disparaged housewives whose painstakingly wrought rituals have held families and communities together. That maintenance, though, required so much overlooked labor and hurt, so many lies; the dream has, in fact, become impossible. Its death, Franklin grants his white audience, may feel harsh, even cruel. But with courage, he shows, the dying too can be done in beauty.

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