American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Families can go along for years without ever facing the underlying problems in their relationships. But sometimes a tragedy can bring everything out in the open, all of sudden and painfully, just when everyone's most vulnerable. Robert Redford's “Ordinary People” begins at a time like that for a family that loses its older son in a boating accident. That leaves three still living at home in a perfectly manicured suburban existence, and the movie is about how they finally have to deal with the ways they really feel about one another.
There's the surviving son, who always lived in his big brother's shadow, who tried to commit suicide after the accident, who has now just returned from a psychiatric hospital. There's the father, a successful Chicago attorney who has always taken the love of his family for granted. There's the wife, an expensively maintained, perfectly groomed, cheerful homemaker whom "everyone loves." The movie begins just as all of this is falling apart.
The movie's central problems circle almost fearfully around the complexities of love. The parents and their remaining child all "love" one another, of course. But the father's love for the son is sincere yet also inarticulate, almost shy. The son's love for his mother is blocked by his belief that she doesn't really love him, she only loved the dead brother. And the love between the two parents is one of those permanent facts that both take for granted and neither has ever really tested.
“Ordinary People” begins with this three-way emotional standoff and develops it through the autumn and winter of one year. And what I admire most about the film is that it really does develop its characters and the changes they go through. So many family dramas begin with a "problem" and then examine its social implications in that frustrating semifactual, docudrama format that's big on TV. “Ordinary People” isn't a docudrama; it's the story of these people and their situation, and it shows them doing what's most difficult to show in fiction, it shows them changing, learning, and growing.