Film Review: Dysfunctional Family Dynamics in Ordinary People

vector picture showing a woman choosing between different types of mindsets: scared, sad, or happy

October 3, 2023

Films, books or series can be powerful tools to discover relationship dynamics. Usually, that happens through identification with certain characters and situations or through negative or positive projection onto characters. An easy example is Friends: ask any fan and you will witness an unbreakable preference for one of the characters. Have you ever heard “Oh, you’re such a Ross!” or “I just can’t stand Phoebe!”? Those are psychological mechanisms in action.

Moving on to a more sober motion picture, we have Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, a true masterpiece of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is no wonder the Internet has described this film as an overlooked gem. A long time has passed since its launch in the early 80s, but the misalignment within the family relationships speaks just as loudly today. Within 120 minutes of powerfully depicted drama, we see how the lack of courage and empathy can bring a family to the brink of disintegration. Please note: this review contains spoilers.


The film tells the story of a well-off suburban American family which loses its older son in a tragic boating accident. The parents, Beth (played by Mary Tyler Moore) and Calvin (played by Donald Sutherland), remain at home with their youngest son, Conrad (played by Timothy Hutton), who is at the centre of the story, as he has recently returned home from the psychiatric hospital after having tried to commit suicide. Conrad, 17, was with his older brother Buck when the boating accident occurred. He is the only survivor. 

Conrad starts seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), who helps him navigate the intricacies of the feelings he is trying to dissociate from. Beth excels in looking after the house, which always looks immaculate. She takes great care of her appearance and is involved in numerous community and social affairs. She is unable to face her feelings of grief and loss, which pushes her away from connecting with Conrad. Beth seems to be keeping herself busy to avoid the piercing pain that any mother would feel when losing a child in such tragic circumstances. The discussions between Beth and Conrad can be so incongruous, that one could easily believe they’re having different conversations altogether. Calvin is a successful tax attorney who finds himself on the fence, with Beth on one side and Conrad on the other. He struggles with understanding his own family, which leads to him fundamentally questioning the relationship between him and Beth. 

Dysfunctional family moments

00:24:00 – 00:25:00 – Christmas holiday planning scene

Beth wants to go to London for Christmas, and Calvin is reluctant to agree because Conrad has just started seeing the psychiatrist and does not want to break this routine. She downplays his concerns by saying it’s not a big deal if he misses three weeks of therapy. She also says “I want to get away” when Calvin asks if she had talked about this with her son. With very little social interest or empathy, she minimises the gravity of the situation as a strategy to get what she wants.

We can see here that Calvin wants to help his son recover from his past turmoil and astutely notes that Conrad has just started his sessions and it would not be a good idea to leave until things are better. Beth seems to be centred on herself and on satisfying her desires to get away. She believes that a trip to London is the recipe for things “getting back to normal”, deluding herself that the underlying issues will magically disappear. 

00:43:42 – 00:44:56 – Helping out around the house

Conrad arrives home to find his mother setting the table for dinner. He offers to help, but Beth refuses. He then insists on giving her a hand, to which she says he could go and clean his room “because it really is a mess”. The phone rings, so Beth picks up. A friend called to check in on her and asked Beth if it was a good time to talk. Beth responds with “Oh, I wasn’t doing anything”. Conrad then hears her laughter and has a flashback of Beth laughing just as enthusiastically when Buck would tell her stories. 

Conrad’s attempt to connect is unmistakable here. His strategy to connect implies an activity the mother is ardent about – dinner protocol. He does not give up after Beth turns him down and he insists, to which the mother amplifies the rejection by effectively sending him to his room. It looks like Beth is trying to avoid any meaningful interaction with Conrad. The “saved by the bell” phone call moment ensues, thus dismissing the entire situation as “not doing anything”. Conrad’s goal to connect did not align with Beth’s goal to avoid. 

01:05:15 – 01:06:49 – Conrad and Beth have a fight

It’s nearing Christmas. Calvin and Conrad are setting up the Christmas tree. Beth comes home distraught and explains how Conrad quit swimming a month ago and did not tell his parents anything. Swimming is a very cherished activity for the parents. Conrad and Buck used to be stellar members of the swimming team. Conrad justifies himself by saying that he did not think it mattered, to which the mother asks Conrad why he wants to hurt her and embarrass her in front of her friends (she had found out from a friend of hers who thought she knew). Conrad starts to be angry, raising his voice and saying that the only reason she even cares is because someone else knew about it first. He then starts to accuse her of not visiting him at all while he was in hospital, choosing to travel through Europe instead. 

Conrad dropped out of the swimming team not only as an act of self-defeat but also as revenge for the hurt he felt. He knew how much swimming meant for his mother and that it was a cherished activity his brother and he would do together. On the other hand, Beth is not angry because of Conrad quitting per se, but because she found out from a friend, which she finds humiliating. She is again so concerned with the image she projects in public that she fails to see the purpose behind the behaviour. We also find out that she did not visit her son when he needed her most, choosing to escape across the ocean. It becomes apparent that her behaviour priorities are avoiding unmanageable feelings and controlling her surroundings, including her family. 

Encouragement and goal alignment

Despite the tragic, dysfunctional family story, the film also has glimpses of hope, love, and care.

Conrad finds a girlfriend whom he meets in the choir he sings in. From the onset, Jeannine offers Conrad encouragement, by noticing his singing skills. She is also the first person outside the hospital to caringly enquire about his suicide attempt. Conrad’s mood changes dramatically after the encounters he has with Jeannine. There is one scene in which he sings “Hallelujah” all the way from the bus stop to his room after Jeannine tells him he’s a great tenor. 

The film ends with a superb display of goal alignment and reconciliation between Conrad and his father. Calvin admits he feels he should have had a better handle on things and he “just was not listening”. Conrad replies beautifully and tenderly by saying that he has always felt Calvin had a handle for everything and he admires him a lot for it. He ends with a touching “I love you”. 

Final thoughts

The title of this film is sadly very aptly chosen. What you see in Ordinary People can happen in almost any family. Tensions, repressed feelings and resentment are often hidden behind the shiny veneer of a “model household”. 

What did you think of the film? Did you side with one character or get very annoyed by another? Let me know, I’d love to find out.