Psychological Movie Interpretation: Ordinary People
On the surface, the movie Ordinary People is a movie about loss. It focuses on a family that is recovering from the death of its oldest son. The older son, Buck, and the younger son, Conrad, are portrayed as stereotypical golden boys, with lifetimes full of promise ahead of them. Both boys are strong swimmers on the swim team, however, while out together, without any parents, on a boat, they get into a boating accident. Buck is unable to save himself. Perhaps more significantly, Conrad is unable to save Buck. Conrad spirals into a significant depression and attempts to commit suicide. He is hospitalized in a mental institution because of his suicide attempt. The movie opens after Conrad returns home from the mental hospital and focuses on Conrad's attempts to reintegrate into his family and his suburban environment. Conrad's father, Calvin, is distraught about Buck's death, but desperate for Conrad to heal and for the family to return to a state of normalcy. Conrad's mother, Beth, seems angry at Conrad through most of the movie. Conrad begins to see a therapist, Dr. Berger, who helps him work through the feelings he has about his brother's death. Calvin and Beth's marriage continues to deteriorate, while Conrad's health improves. Conrad has a friendship with a girl named Karen, who was in the mental hospital with him. She tells him that she does not want to spend time with him because she fears a relapse, and she does eventually relapse and commit suicide. Conrad also begins dating a girl named Jeannine, who attends school with him. Her family has recently moved to the area, so she does not know Buck and is unaware of Conrad's suicide attempt. By the conclusion of the movie, the focus is on the relationship between Calvin and Conrad, and, because Beth refused to work on her marriage or help Conrad, Calvin has asked her to leave.
Watching the movie, an audience member cannot help but realize the important role that social relationships play in the lives of each of the characters. The movie is about loss in many ways, and loss is only significant if one considers the social relationships that must underlie loss. Furthermore, the loss is about more than the loss of Buck. It is also about the loss that the individual family members are continuing to experience. Conrad and Calvin are both beginning to recognize that Beth's surface personality does not hide a deeper emotional person; she wants to live life in a superficial manner. Therefore, examining Conrad's development from the perspective of Erik Erikson's psychosocial stages can provide insight into how Conrad's social environment has helped shape his development. "According to Erikson, the ego develops as it successfully resolves crises that are distinctly social in nature. These involve establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future" (McLeod, 2013).
Examining the movie, it appears that Conrad, who is exiting from adolescence into young adulthood, is experiencing two stages in Erikson's theory of life stage development. For Erikson, there were eight stages of psychosocial development. Each of these stages involves a conflict between two positions that Erikson described as being in direct opposition. These stages are: trust vs. mistrust; autonomy vs. shame and doubt; initiative vs. guilt; industry vs. inferiority; identity vs. role confusion; intimacy vs. isolation; generative vs. stagnation; and ego integrity vs. despair (Cherry, 2013). Identify vs. role confusion is associated with adolescence and is generally experienced during one's teenage years (Cherry, 2013). Intimacy vs. isolation is associated with young adulthood and is generally experienced in young adulthood (Cherry, 2013). Conrad would probably be in the intimacy vs. isolation stage, but the death of his brother, accompanied by Conrad's own suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization, have left him with lingering questions about his identity. In many ways, his sessions with Dr. Berger are aimed at helping him determine his own personal identity.
One of the reasons that Conrad experiences role confusion is because his life was very intertwined with his older brother Buck's life. It is during adolescence that the individual begins to have some responsibility for actions; until adolescence, a child's life is largely a function of what is done to the child (Harder, 2012). The adolescent is taxed with discovering individuality separate from the family of origin and as a member of society (Harder, 2012). While Buck was alive, Conrad did not engage in the separation from his family that would normally have been expected during this time period. Buck was Conrad's best friend and they did almost everything together. However, the things they did appear to have been based upon Buck's preferences, rather than Conrad's. Moreover, it does not appear that Conrad challenged this relationship while Buck was alive. Instead, he seemed content to bask in Buck's shadow. Buck's abrupt death took Conrad's primary life role from him, and, no longer identified as Buck's little brother, Conrad was uncertain who he was.
Interestingly enough, though it occurs to the beginning of the movie, Buck's hospitalization imposed a period of forced separation and growth, away from his family. In fact, although not a constructive means of acquiring distance, his unsuccessful attempt to kill himself, which would have resulted in him permanently being in Buck's shadow, may have been necessary in order to Buck to actually begin his separation from his family. By surviving a near-death experience, Conrad becomes fundamentally different from Buck. That Conrad asserts independence in a complicated manner is not surprising; adolescence is a time of growing complexity, as people struggle with social interactions, grapple with moral issues, and seek to find their own identities (Harder, 2012).
This period of separation helps Conrad begin his development away from his family, and it is no surprise that he develops a strong friendship with a girl named Karen while at the mental hospital. During this stage, a person's most significant relationships tend to be with peer groups (Harder, 2012). Therefore, that Conrad has a lasting relationship with another person from the mental hospital is telling. Moreover, while it may initially seem consistent with her desire to heal, the fact that Karen pulls away from Conrad is actually inconsistent with this stage, because she is pulling away from the one friend the audience knows she has within her peer group. The audience might fear that Conrad is emulating Karen's behavior when he follows Dr. Berger's advice to quit the swim team, which he no longer enjoys, and pursue his own interests. This places distance between Conrad and his existing group of friends. However, when one considers that Conrad's existing group of friends were mutual friends that he shared with Buck, the pulling away from his peers is actually an indication that he is asserting independence.
In many ways, the movie is about Conrad's failure to successfully resolve the conflict presented in Erikson's fifth stage. He was not able to establish sufficient independence from his family. Therefore, in the aftermath of Buck's death, Conrad finds himself unable to cope with the death of his brother. This is exacerbated by his correct assumption that his mother does not love him as much as she loved Buck. Moreover, after his suicide attempt, she is less concerned about Conrad's well-being than she is about the embarrassment she felt to have their family imperfections exposed by that attempt. However, Conrad's therapy with Dr. Berger is a way for him to successfully resolve these conflicts. Dr. Berger consistently challenges Conrad when Conrad is internalizing the negative aspects of his family environment. Dr. Berger also pushes Conrad to establish his own set of friends, encouraging him to quit swim team, one suspects, not only because he feels Conrad needs additional therapy, but also because he suspects that Conrad needs to establish some friends outside of the group of mutual friends he shared with Buck.
The other stage examined in the movie is stage six. Stage six generally occurs in early adulthood, and, though Conrad is still in high school, he is certainly an emerging adult. The conflict in stage six represents the conflict between intimacy and isolation. Successful resolution of the stage six conflict determines the ability of the person to engage in intimate relationships without withholding from intimacy (Erikson, 1994, p.97, para. 2). Conrad has two semi-romantic relationships in the movie. He appears to have a romantic friendship interest in Karen, and his interest in Jeannine is clearly romantic. However, the real relationship that Conrad must resolve during this stage is his relationship with Beth. Beth provides an example for the type of isolation a person will experience if unable to successfully resolve stage six conflict and being unable to engage in intimate relationships. She is able to maintain these relationships on a superficial level. Moreover, she is able to fake intimacy so well that, so long as her life was without any real conflict, no one really suspected…