Every now and then, you find yourself watching a film that absolutely reeks of “award-bait”. By award-bait, I mean the kind of movie that seems to naturally find itself being discussed as a contender for a variety of industry awards, like the Oscars or the Golden Globes. Some common characteristics of award-bait movies are they’re biopics about famous figures, they’re about a handicapped person, they’re about some hot button political issue, or they represent some maudlin bit of human suffering. 1998’s One True Thing becomes an award-bait film because of the human suffering bit. However, thanks to the sincerity of the script and the emotional powerhouse performances of its leads, it manages to also be a great movie. Most award bait films try to look attractive to the voters but end up failing for being to formulaic or conventional. This film probably is formulaic and conventional, but it remains a powerful experience.
One True Thing is the chronicle of the Gulden family, although to be specific, the chronicles of Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger), a journalist at the New Yorker. Ellen has come home for her father’s 55th birthday. Her father, George Gulden (William Hurt), is a celebrated professor of American literature, and Ellen idolizes him. Her mother, Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep), is a housewife who is always doing creative projects around the house and the neighborhood with the local social club. Ellen resents her mother for not living the life of a modern woman. Ellen’s life is turned upside down when she discovers that her mother has cancer, and her father wants her to move back home and take care of her mother. Along the way, she discovers the brighter sides of her mother and that perhaps her father isn’t the perfect man she thought he was.
If the plot sounds like something you’ve heard a million times before, you probably have, but this film keeps enough fresh ideas and twists to keep you engaged. However, so many films of this type use tragedy, and tragedy alone, as the sole way to play on your emotions. This film succeeds so well because of how sincere it comes off. This sincerity wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the unbelievable performances of its leads, particularly Meryl Streep. As the matriarch of this family in the final stages of terminal cancer, Streep brings such life and joie de vivre to Kate Gulden. Yet, at the same time, when the script calls for it, she can portray all of the passion and anger needed as well. I mean, there’s a reason why Meryl Streep is often called one of the greatest actresses of all time and why she has more Oscar nominations than any other woman besides Katherine Hepburn (this film being one of the nominations). I don’t normally like Renee Zellweger but in this film, she was brilliant as well. Being in that situation would be absolutely terrible, and she plays all of the resentment and bitterness and betrayal to a tee. She has great chops as a dramatic actress. It’s a shame she ruins her career with terrible romantic comedies. William Hurt was also great, as always, as well. He’s one of the most under-rated character actors in the business.
I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to the fact that I spent the last third of this film just bawling my eyes out. Watching Kate’s transformation from the bustling head of her household to a frail, withered away shell of what she used to be, it’s absolutely heart breaking. At the same time, watching this family, which beneath the facade of perfection is literally falling apart at the seams, bring itself back together was a very emotionally powerful experience. The only reason this film is going to get the score it’s getting and not an “A” is because of the anti-feminist message I got from the film, which said the successful, career-driven woman is wrong and the happy house wife is right. It’s kind of offensive for a movie that came out at the tail end of the 90’s. Other than that, this movie was wonderful, and an emotional roller-coaster. Watch it, but have some tissues ready.
Final Score: A-