No matter how well we eventually come to understand our parents,
our deepest feelings about them are formed at a time when we are young and have
incomplete information. “One True Thing” is about a daughter who grows up
admiring her father and harboring doubts about her mother, and finds out she
doesn't know as much about either one as she thinks she does.
The movie is based on the 1995 novel by Anna Quindlen about a
New York magazine writer whose father is “Mr. American Literature” and whose
mother seems to have been shaped by the same forces that generated Martha
Stewart's hallucinations. Ellen (Renee Zellweger) is bright and pretty but with
a subtle wounded look: She has that way of signaling that she's been hurt and
expects to be hurt again.
She comes home to upstate New York for a surprise birthday party
for her father, a professor named George (William Hurt), and is not surprised
to see her mother, Kate (Meryl Streep), prancing around the house dressed like
Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Yes, it's a costume party, but Kate is the kind
of woman who can find costumes like that right in her own closet. Eventually
Ellen gets a chance to ask her dad about her latest magazine article, which he
has read and, “writer to writer,” thinks should be “more muscular.” Later he
muses, “When I was 20 and working at the New Yorker, I would spend a whole day
working on a single sentence.” That's the kind of statement that deserves pity
rather than respect; if it is true, then to meet his deadlines he must have had
to dash off his other sentences in heedless haste. Ellen should be able to feel
a certain contempt for her father for even using such a ploy, but she is
blinded by his tweeds, his National Book Award, his seminars, his whole edifice
of importance. He thinks he's a big shot, and she buys it.
Ellen's hurt, we see, comes because her father, whom she
admires, does not sufficiently show his love for her--while her mother, of whom
she disapproves, has a love that is therefore unwelcome. All of this begins to
matter in the next months, as it develops that Kate has cancer, and George wants
his daughter to move back home and take care of her.
But ... I have a career, Ellen argues. “You can work as a
free-lancer from home,” the professor says, clearly not convinced that whatever
his daughter has can be described as a career. He, of course, is too busy with
midterms to take care of Kate. The family's younger brother, Brian (Tom Everett
Scott), must stay in school. Yes, a nurse could be hired, but the professor
doesn't want a nurse poking around the house and disturbing his routine. Kate herself
doesn't want Ellen to stay, but wasn't consulted (by her husband or her
daughter) about the decision.
As autumn winds down into winter, Ellen coexists in the house
with a mother who is clearly demented in the area of domestic activities. She
belongs to a local group named the Minnies, who decorate Christmas trees with
the fury of beavers rebuilding a dam. The luncheon meetings of the Minnies
could be photographed for layouts in food magazines, and of course the Minnies
cook everything themselves. When Ellen breaks a piece of Kate's china, Kate
asks her to save the pieces because she can use them in her mosaic table. Ellen
finally tells Kate she thinks the Minnies are like a cult group.
George, on the other hand, throws his daughter a bone; he asks
her to write an introduction to his collected essays. She is flattered,
although a little wounded that he then immediately asks her, in more or less
the same spirit, to launder some shirts.
As winter unfolds and Kate's illness grows more severe, Ellen
begins to suspect things about her father, and her mother observes this and
finally tells her: “There's nothing that you know about your father that I
don't know--and better.” And we see that the buried story of the movie is the
hurt Kate has borne all these years over the way her daughter's love was
quietly directed away from her.
It is the craftsmanship that elevates “One True Thing” above the
level of a soaper. The director, Carl Franklin (“One False Move”), goes not for
big melodramatic revelations but for the accumulation of emotional investments.
Hurt and Streep are so well cast they're able to overcome the generic natures
of their roles and make them particular people. And Renee Zellweger, as Streep
observed at the Telluride Film Festival, is able to create a place for herself
and work inside it, not acting so much as fiercely possessing her character.
The movie's lesson is that we go through life telling ourselves a story about
our childhood and our parents, but we are the authors of that story, and it is
less fact than fiction.