Three months ago, I was cheering the selection of “12 Years A Slave” as winner of Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars, having seen just five of the nine nominated films. Likewise, I hadn’t viewed one or two nominees each in the Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories.
Since then, thanks to a “movie night” routine that we’ve established with friends, I’ve filled in most of those gaps and come away with renewed admiration for the stellar acting abilities of Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep and appreciation for one film in particular, “August: Osage County.”
Family dynamics in “August: Osage County” led to a discussion about our own childhoods.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen “Captain Phillips,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Blue Jasmine” and “August: Osage County.” As a group, they’re pretty serious films and I found something worthwhile in each of them. The last two rose above the first two, however, and not just because they were meaty roles for Blanchett and Streep. They focused on dysfunctional families and they held back little in presenting damaged characters and strained relationships — between parents and their children as well as between siblings.
Blanchett was superb in an original screenplay written by Woody Allen. We are at first repulsed by her character’s snootiness as a New York trophy wife and condescension toward her less-well-off sister in San Francisco (played well, incidentally, by Julie Hawkins). But as the story unfolds, we feel sorry for Jasmine, who is utterly unable to function on her own, despite stabs at education and romance, and winds up alone on a park bench, talking incoherently to herself.
Streep — the amazing Meryl — is equally superb as Violet Weston, the matriarch of an Oklahoma family brought together after the death of her husband. Her performance was the equal of Blanchett, in my opinion, but I understand the Academy Awards voters wanting to spread the sugar around. As a drug-addled mother of three adult daughters, Streep is domineering and nasty but also, in the end, alone and vulnerable. Julia Roberts is outstanding in a role as the eldest daughter: foul-mouthed and assertive yet dealing with a crumbling marriage and a distant 14-year-old daughter.
The film is based on a play written by Tracy Letts and it is full of scenes that are painful to watch yet ring of authenticity. There are some surprising plot twists that help drive the tension and, near the end, a couple of tender scenes that draw out your sympathies for Violet and other characters.
For me, one of the best signs of a film’s quality is how much conversation it engenders afterward. And by that measure, the best of these films is “August: Osage County.”
Talking about the Weston family led us to talk about our very different stories. As we went around the room, discussing our upbringing, I was struck by how each of us did so — appreciating our parents’ situation without judging or condescension, understanding how our own worldviews might have been shaped.
One friend, from Alaska, spent time with her Japanese-American family in a World War II concentration camp in Idaho. She spoke of her parents’ positive attitude and their unrelenting encouragement for their children to get a college education.
Another friend, from California, told of his dad being killed at Pearl Harbor when he was a young boy, of his mother’s remarriage, of being sent to a military school at age 7, and then of the awkwardness he felt after transferring to a public school, where everything seemed to be so lax in comparison. Though he and his stepfather didn’t get along well, he formed an exceptionally tight bond with his older brother that continues today.
Our host, born in Oregon, spoke about her parents’ divorce, of being the only one in her family with academic ambitions, of strained relations with her siblings, of a financially successful but emotionally distant father.
Lori, born and raised in San Francisco, described a happy childhood as the Catholic school girl with two older brothers, long-married parents active in their church and community. Her dad was a second-generation Slovene who put himself through college, her mother a mostly stay-at-home mom who moved up to Portland late in life to be near us and one of Lori’s brothers.
And I, also born and raised in the Bay Area, talked of life in a working-class Mexican American household, of my parents’ divorce when I was 15, of following a solitary path to college. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to attend high school but they encouraged me, their only son sandwiched between two sisters, to strive for more. I also spoke of the physical and at times emotional distance that comes from living far apart from my sisters (in southern California and Alaska) for nearly 40 years.
All this talk was spontaneous and very genuine. If all of our parents, either aging or already passed, could have been there, I think they would have been very proud of the sons and daughters they raised. As a group, I’d describe us as intellectually curious, resourceful, open-minded and adaptable. How we would have handled being part of Violet Weston’s family is an open question. But I won’t think of “August: Osage County” without thinking of our post-film discussion. Great movie. Great friends.
Photograph: Claire Folger/Associated Press