The movie assumes that family disintegration is the natural result of Protestant values.

It is no accident that the family father’s name is Calvin in Ordinary People. Nor is it an accident that the movie’s first action scene finds the troubled adolescent in the church choir singing dignified Protestant hymns. The father’s name is a reminder of a founder of the Protestantism whose values underlie the successes of our society. The movie’s main characters are supposedly living embodiments of Calvinist values, caricatures designed to attack and destroy those values.

Ordinary People is the story of the Jarretts, an upper middle-class family in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. They are highly attractive people—mother, father, and son—but they are in the process of disintegration. The older son is dead by drowning, and the younger son has just emerged from a four-month stay in a mental hospital following attempted suicide.

The Academy Award-winning movie has received high praise from the very beginning. A long, early New York Times review and interview with the film’s director, Robert Redford, clearly underscored the movie’s purposes. Redford goes to the heart of the issue when he says the movie “could be about people’s inability to deal with their feelings. About what we pretend to be, versus what we are. About the status quo, and whether it’s worth the trouble it takes to maintain” (NY Times, Sept. 21, 1980; emphasis added). Thus we are not just dealing with troubled individuals who could be found in any environment; a whole way of life is on trial.

Analyzing Ordinary People is not simple. In its 124 minutes it so subtly intermingles truth and falsity (and, we might add, with good acting) that one must go to great lengths to disengage ...

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