One True Thing
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Meryl Streep (Kate Gulden), Renee Zellweger (Ellen Gulden), William Hurt (George Gulden), Tom Everett Scott (Brian Gulden), Lauren Graham (Jules), Nicky Katt (Jordan Belzer), James Eckhouse (District Attorney), Patrick Breen (Mr. Tweedy), Gerrit Graham (Oliver Most)
At first glance, "One True Thing" looks like one thing to avoid. Its previews made it come off like a bloated TV disease-movie-of-the-week about cancer; its screenplay, based on a popular 1994 book by Anna Quindlen, was written by Karen Croner, a writer with only TV experience; and, as icing on the cake so to speak, it stars Meryl Streep as the dying mother, sort of the opposite of her role in 1996's "Marvin's Room." Yep, "One True Thing" seemed to have all the necessary ingredients for a shallow, three-hanky "Weep for Streep" movie.
But, surprisingly, it's not like that at all. The subject matter of "One True Thing" is not particularly deep, and the characters aren't particularly original, but a handful of fine performances by veteran actors and the steady, impressive direction of Carl Franklin ("One False Move") hold it together quite nicely. Instead of being just about coping with cancer, it tells an interesting story about a young woman coming to terms with the fact that her parents are not who she always thought they were.
Renee Zellweger ("Jerry Maguire") stars as the young woman, Ellen Gulden, an ambitious 26-year-old writer for "New York" magazine. The movie makes her the center of the film by using an interesting narrative structure, where most of the story is told in flashback while Ellen answers questions from a district attorney. As the movie progresses, we begin to see more and more that what she is telling the DA and what we see on-screen do not match up, creating an uncomfortable tension and adding a mysterious element to the proceedings
Ellen's father, George (William Hurt) asks her to come back to her sleepy childhood hometown when her mother, Kate (Streep), is diagnosed with cancer and has to undergo chemotherapy. George, who Ellen has admired and emulated all her life, is a semi-famous English scholar. His relationship with Ellen is established early on with a touching, knowing scene where Ellen asks her father to honestly critique one of her articles, and the hurt pride in her eyes glows when he does just that.
In sharp contrast to the worldly ambitions of both Ellen and George, Kate is a proud homemaker--she cooks and bakes and knits and cleans, all with the kind of sincere enjoyment that tells us she has purpose and drive. She's good at what she does, and the movie makes it clear that she is the glue that holds the family together. Therefore, when she gets sick and is unable to do what she's been doing for more than two dozen years, the seams start to come undone.
At first, Ellen doesn't see this because to her, success and purpose lie out there in the "real world," which for her is the hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners business of big city journalism (when the movie opens, she's hard at work trying to unearth scandalous details about a senator busted for drugs). She doesn't respect her mother's accomplishments; in fact, early scenes of her scoffing and rolling her eyes at a surprise birthday party Kate throws for George suggest that her feelings border on being contemptuous.
However, once she is forced to deal with both her dying mother and her often distant father who is no longer the pillar of intellectual strength she imagined because he is either unwilling or incapable of dealing with the crisis, Ellen has to find a new kind of strength and understanding--the kind, the movie argues, her mother has had all along.
"One True Thing" is imbued with a kind of conservatism that seems oddly out of place on the big screen--which is, in fact, quite refreshing. Through Kate's character and Ellen's slow realizations, we are allowed to see the small joys in life--how doing things for the ones you love (even if that effort appears to go unnoticed) may be more important than digging up dirt on a wayward politician. There's a wonderful scene where Ellen, fed up with doing all the housework while her father "works late," asks her mother how she has withstood doing it for so many years. Kate doesn't have much of an answer, except to say that she does it for people she loves, and that's enough.
There's another telling scene that takes place in a bar, where Ellen complains about how some people (her father in particular) claim to be "coping in their own way" during crises, but as she rightly points out, that usually entails doing nothing at all. Meanwhile, despite all upheavals and tragedies, the daily grind of life must go on, and it is thanklessly up to people like Ellen and her mother to make sure there is still food on the table.
"One True Thing" does have its weak spots. At times it get a little too sentimental (luckily Cliff Eidelman's music, much like his work on "Untamed Heart," is just enough to round out the emotional highs and lows without being obtrusive). There are also a few characters who get lost in the proceedings, notably an underachieving younger brother played by Tom Everett Scott. There's also a sorely lacking subplot involving Ellen's boyfriend, who seems to be a younger, even more distant version of her father (Freud, anyone?).
But overall, watching "One True Thing" is time well-spent. It's hard to find contemporary movies that deal honestly with family relations without being either sappy or cynical. "One True Thing" could have easily slipped over in either direction, but thankfully it maintains a steady balance, which allows us to see that even flawed families have their strengths, and even the deepest wounds are mendable. But, most of all, it reminds us never to take anyone for granted, especially those who are closest to us.
©1998 James Kendrick