Patron Pick – One True Thing

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.

One True Thing (1998)
Written by Karen Croner
Directed by Carl Franklin

Movies like One True Thing weren’t on my radar in the late 1990s. I was a teenager, a year away from college, sheltered & homeschooled, working at my local public library and discovering all sorts of exciting niche things I would cultivate over the decades. So something like this movie wouldn’t have even been a blip for me. Instead, I was far more interested in exploring weird movies, inching my way towards becoming the art house snob I lived as during college. Now, at age 41, I appreciate this type of movie more, particularly in the face of its near extinction, as something you can see in a theater. The cineplexes are dominated by blockbuster incoherence, and streaming seems to be a flood of mediocrity devoid of soul. So while One True Thing sounds like a Lifetime movie in its description, the performances, mainly Meryl Streep’s (coming as no surprise to anyone), elevate the picture to something of note.

Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger) is a writer for New York magazine on the cusp of breaking a huge story. She becomes sidetracked after a visit home to her parents. There’s novelist and literature professor George (Wiliam Hurt), Ellen’s inspiration growing up, inspiring her to become a writer. Her mother, Kate (Streep), has always been viewed by her daughter as ditzy & unserious. Kate chose to be a stay-at-home mother and spent her days attending to domestic tasks. In Ellen’s eyes, this is beneath her. Kate comes back from an overnight stay at the hospital. They removed part of a cancerous mass, but it’s still growing. George refuses to cut back on his classes, so Ellen moves in to tend to her mother and those household duties she’s always looked down on. 

Through this story, Ellen views her mother as a far more layered person than she once thought. Conversely, George loses standing in his daughter’s eyes as she discovers he is not the peon of virtue she once thought he was, indulging in unserious sexual affairs with students over the years. Ellen is also pulled between attending to her mom and her editor’s demands. It all culminates in multiple moments of catharsis, with characters finally telling each other what they should have a long time ago. Ellen learns that marriage is complex and complicated and that some people choose to look the other way because they prioritize things differently. As far as “white lady cancer” movies go, this wasn’t too bad. While I have not seen Terms of Endearment (yet), I would not be surprised if this film is borrowing quite a bit thematically.

One of the issues I had with the film, as I do with so many, was the runtime. 127 minutes. That’s a lot to ask from your audience and probably explains why sentiments about the picture (aside from Streep) are relatively lukewarm. There’s a lot to explore in the movie, but I don’t think there is that much. As a result, the picture feels muddled through its second act. Characters are present but then don’t ever do anything relevant, causing me to think they should have been edited out to focus more tightly on our core family. In some places, I felt we were checking in on the neighbors to The Family Stone with the upper-middle-class whiteness of it all.

Where I felt One True Thing shined was in its depiction of cancer and just how nasty that illness can be to a human being. Streep is phenomenal, especially near the end of the second act, as the disease pulls her away from her life. The once upbeat, chipper homemaker becomes increasingly irritable and cannot hide her suffering anymore. As an elementary school teacher, I have worked with women who have gone through cancer; almost all have made it out alive and will continue to have good health. Unfortunately, the public face presented so often is one of suppressing the pain. We’re taught, women especially, that our public personas should be pleasant to others; women are told to serve & be happy. I liked that we saw a woman who understood she was in the presence of death and didn’t hide how much such a process hurts. Yet, she never loses the love at the core of her being; that love is presented in new ways as her body changes.

Even more inspiring was how the movie handled how we have a right to end our lives. In the Calvinist-rooted ideologies of America, suffering is taught to us as something we have to accept, the cost of original sin, they say. Yet, you and I know that is complete bullshit. Life doesn’t have to be a pain, for those with power & money can often afford to rise above the toil the rest of us suffer. Living in Europe, I’ve learned much about the human end-of-life care offered to people with terminal illnesses. They acknowledge the pain of diseases like cancer and allow people to end their life on their terms. I read about an elderly couple, one with a fatal illness & the other was just as old and simply didn’t want to go on living without their mate. Both were granted access to the drugs and passed away together, holding hands. I see that as beautiful, an act of transcendent love, while right-wing religio-fascists would argue that this is “destructive to the culture.” It’s empowering to the people to choose not to suffer, to choose love over oblivion.

Yet, that doesn’t mean everyone who wants to kill themselves should be afforded that. Psychological examinations and clear, precise diagnoses should be a part of that. The person making the decisions about their end-of-life options should be informed to an absurd degree, so they know they are making the correct choice. If suicidal ideation is fueled by mental health issues, then we should lean on not granting those requests but instead providing adequate mental healthcare. With medically assisted suicide, we risk indulging in eugenics, so all disabilities should be off the table. If a disabled person feels that suicide is the answer, then more often than not, the root cause is a society that excludes them from it. Suicide won’t solve anything in those cases, but uprooting the culture to make it drastically more accommodating likely will.

I also appreciated that the movie underlined some forgotten parts of feminism, that women are valid people no matter how they choose to live. Homemakers get discouraged just like sex workers as not being “real feminists.” I wouldn’t be surprised to find the same people sharing this sentiment are also TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and that they don’t practice true feminist ideology as much as they cultivate a fascist distortion of the movement. This same mindset feeds toxic masculinity and its adherence that being a nurturer is an act of weakness. I find that to be completely absurd, and I know it takes considerable strength to care for others. If American society had more men & women acting as caregivers, it would be a far better place to live. 

One True Thing is no masterpiece, but thanks to Streep’s excellent work, you will have a tear in your eye during some of her scenes in the latter half of the movie. It was nice to watch a human film while trafficking in the sort of maudlin sentiment you expect from American domestic pictures; I didn’t feel that it ever talked down to me. Its conclusion is quite powerful, a statement about bravery and the will to go on but also the choice to know when you will not tolerate any more unnecessary suffering. My people, The Americans, have such an unhealthy relationship with death. It was made evident throughout the still ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the public health crisis rippling through communities. We often try to live in defiance of death, failing to understand its place in our life cycle. This terrible virus has reminded us how fragile we are, and I fear some people’s incoherent bravado in the face of it led to their deaths and disabilities to follow. Death is not easy, but it is the second most important event in our lives, and so we should seek to understand it, to know that it waits for us all, and make sure that the life we pursue in the meantime is as meaningful & kind as we can make it.

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