One True Thing
December 15, 2017
Tom Everett Scott
2 Hrs., 7 Mins.
strange disconnect suddenly appears. While we still might feel the need to kiss the ground on which our parents walk, we suddenly do not consistently see them as if they were consistently backlit, glowing like angels. Seemingly out of the blue, they become people. People with anxieties, bad habits, nervous ticks. People we may or may not have been chosen to be friends with in high school.
Of course, this does not happen for everyone — the aforementioned experiences are just characteristics of the Nuclear idyll. But they nevertheless exist for the protagonist of Carl Franklin’s One True Thing (1998), an aching family drama. In the film, this character, the high-powered New York Magazine journalist Ellen (Renée Zellweger), abandons her stressful life in the Big Apple to take care of her terminally-ill mother Kate (Meryl Streep) while her college professor father George (William Hurt) wallows in his own self-pity.
Yet in a way, everyone in One True Thing is self-pitying: Kate’s illness has incurred various kinds of crises for everyone in the family. For years, Ellen, who’s deadly serious and has a tendency to wear all black, has convinced herself that she is not close with her mother, who’d maybe bump elbows with Martha Stewart if she pursued homemaking professionally. She’s instead decided that she has a better relationship with her father, a writer. They're the same person, she thinks.
But upon returning home, she finds that the notions she’s adjusted to over the years might be incorrect. Immediately after arriving, we can tell that so much of what Ellen’s been led to believe about her family life is more embedded in the seeking of approval than the truth. George, who always reminds her that he was a staff writer for The New Yorker when he was only 20, never has anything nice to say about her writing. As such, Ellen is obsessed with proving herself. Kate is always one to shower her with praise, but because the former doesn’t respect her, these attempts at validation will never matter.
The reintegration back into her hometown changes things. Ellen notices that George is never really home — and later discovers that most of the time spent away is with other women. (Though lately it’s mostly been with bartenders.) She also begins discerning that her mother’s annoying tendency to dote is not intentional — she simply wants everyone to be happy. As these truths start coming out of the shadows, Ellen realizes that she might have been wrong all these years. That her father isn’t actually as good a man as she thought, that her mother’s capability of making the most of even the most dire of circumstances is something to aspire to, not mock.
One True Thing becomes progressively heartbreaking the more it meanders onward: the running time equates with these characters ridding themselves of their niceties and actually saying what’s on their minds.
This material has the potential to wander into more melodramatic territories. The storyline’s not unlike one you’d find in a shitty old Hollywood weeper. But Franklin has a deft touch. Karen Croner’s screenplay is more interested in pushing these characters toward their respective breaking points than she is in showcasing grandiose theatrical scenes that aren’t much more than acting-offs. And Franklin’s sensitive directorial style suits her unconventional methods of tugging the heartstrings. The movie deals with a subject that’s a universality for many; even if some of us have not had to grapple with the painful, long-winded death of a loved one, a great majority understand what it’s like to realize that the parents you grew up with are not necessarily the same in adulthood. Franklin understands this, appropriately nursing the most personal aspects of the movie.
Much of One True Thing’s ability to stir has to do with Zellweger’s haunting leading performance, which is among the best of her career. She has a face which conveys a certain sort of implacable hurt; she’s perfectly cast as the daughter who is seen by so many as a success but nevertheless feels like a failure when looked at by her father.
We empathize with her. We empathize with her devotion to her career (she won’t admit that she’d rather die than abandon the story she was working on before going back home); her accidental irritability with her mother; her insatiable desire to appease her father; her teary-eyed epiphany that all these years she’s underestimated her mother (as well as taken her for granted); her crushing understanding that her father is not, in fact, a good man. By One True Thing’s end, which finds her world completely rocked, we want to embrace her, even though we know things will work out for her once again.
Some of the film’s most affecting sequences are the ones that find Zellweger acting opposite Streep. For much of the movie, we don’t feel as though we really know the latter. Like Mary Tyler Moore’s character in Ordinary People (1980), we establish that she’s a vapid homemaker without a lot else to her. But in later scenes which see her in the final stages of her illness, we finally see her for who she is: this creative type whose sometimes overwhelming showcasing of her love is her way of filling in the void made by her husband’s philandering ways and by her daughter’s never accepting her adoration. Sometimes she’s a lot to take in. But as exemplified by her family at the end of One True Thing, you’ll miss her when she’s gone, and Streep embodies her spirit effectively.
The movie, however tear-jerking, still comes with its shortcomings. Ellen has a brother (Tom Everett Scott), but we never get to know him; he’s forever sitting on the sidelines. Kate is ultimately given a satisfying arc, but it is true that she does not become multidimensional until the final act. And we don’t believe it when Ellen eventually gives the investigative piece she’s been working on for months to another reporter — it’s out of character for someone so self-assured professionally.
But One True Thing is otherwise a winner, a hotbed of excellent performances and well-deserved catharses. Who knew a weeper with clear Hallmark trappings could be so efficient in developing its aches and pains? B+
he shift in our perceptions of our parents is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of growing older. When we’re children, every move they make is romanticized and idolized; a mistake is quickly forgiven while a triumph is heightened. We don't think of them so much as individuals. We consider them gods walking among us, incapable of doing wrong.
Yet something changes as the years pass. As we become increasingly able to develop our own ideas about life and of the world surrounding us, a