[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]
On the use of therapy to help tell the stories of two troubled, telling teens.
There’s a lot to like about Good Will Hunting, and much of it is deeply engaged with American identities and communities: first and foremost there’s Robin Williams’ career-best performance as Sean Maguire, a South Boston child genius turned Vietnam vet turned therapist for fellow Vietnam vets turned mourning widower seeking to rediscover the spark that he has lost along with his wife; but there’s also, among other things, a pretty incisive if quick set of portraits of different Boston communities, from the Southie of Will (Matt Damon) and his friends to the Cambridge of Harvard and MIT; and a really interesting multi-generational American narrative, with Williams and his college roommate (Stellan Skarsgard) representing in this analysis two very different paths that the nation took after the 60s and Will and his British immigrant and fellow orphan girlfriend (Minnie Driver) a new generation coming to grips with its past and making its hesitant way forward. But to my mind, the one scene that the film—and its wunderkind young screenwriters Damon and Ben Affleck—didn’t quite nail is also perhaps the most important: Will and Sean’s breakthrough in therapy. Damon’s performance in the scene is phenomenally good, but I just don’t buy that Sean’s repetition of “It’s not your fault” in relation to Will’s history of abuse is enough to shatter decades of repression and avoidance.
Therapy in general and breakthroughs in particular are, it seems to me, particularly difficult to capture on film, as they require the kinds of patient and gradual and multi-part conversations that can drag the pace of a film to a virtual halt. Similarly, much of what defines teenage identity and experience (and Will is either a teenager or a very early twenty-something, I would say) is in a lot of ways quieter and more inward-looking than can be easily captured in a film; it’s no coincidence that many of the most acclaimed movies about teenage life are, like those made by John Hughes, all about putting teenagers together in places and sequences where they have charged and impassioned conversations, drawing out those introverted identities. For a single film to capture both what it means to be an individual teenager and what therapy can ideally accomplish is thus an extremely tall order. But I would argue that there is such a film in our history, one that is known to many film buffs mainly as the movie that (in this view) robbed Raging Bull of its Best Picture Oscar: Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980). I’m not going to debate the Best Picture question here—Bull, like most of Martin Scorcese’s films, doesn’t work for me nearly as well as it seems to for most viewers, but in any case the two films are so different as to reveal just how subjective and inconclusive the idea of choosing one as the year’s Best Picture really is. But I most definitely will stand up for Redford’s film on its own terms.
There are lots of ways to make that argument, including those that have little to do with teenagers or therapy: the perfect pairing of Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland; the best use of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” in any movie; the cinematography and especially how well the film captures the textures and details of its suburban settings in fall and winter; the moments of humor that provide just enough balance to keep the film from being dominated by its darker tones. But what makes Ordinary People truly great, and truly revelatory about its core themes and experiences, are two central performances: the unbelievably impressive film debut of a 20 year old Timothy Hutton as the movie’s protagonist, Conrad Jared, to my mind the most rich and realistic teenager in any American film; and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s unusual, sarcastic, and very committed therapist, Dr. Berger. The therapy sessions between the two of them form the movie’s core and heart in every sense, and are allowed to develop with precisely the kind of patient, gradual, quiet, multi-part pace about which I wrote above; by the time they, and we, come to the breakthrough, aided by a new tragedy in Conrad’s life and one of the most judicious and best uses of flashback I’ve ever seen, it feels entirely believable and convincing, not least because it’s partial and painful and represents, without question, only a step (if a crucial and literally life-saving one) on Conrad’s continuing journey toward health, happiness, and a more balanced and realized sense of himself and his identity and future.
Interestingly enough, Good Will Hunting gives its great last line to Williams’ therapist (whose own rich character trajectory will definitely continue beyond that ending), while Hirsch’s character is absent from Ordinary People’s final scenes (which are devoted instead to the culminating conversations between first Moore and Sutherland and then Hutton and Sutherland). But perhaps that’s part of my point about Redford’s film—therapy, like teenage life, is ideally a stage of experience, and while Conrad Jared has not left either entirely behind by the end of the film, his time with Dr. Berger nonetheless feels as if it has reached a satisfying conclusion. Next teen texts tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?