One True Thing (review)

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Mothers and Daughters

Oh, One True Thing could so easily have been Stepmom II. On the surface, there are lots of similarities. We’ve got cancer, we’ve got one woman giving up her career when a man should have made that sacrifice, and we’ve got it all taking place during the schmaltziest of holidays: Christmas.

But One True Thing is a lot more realistic about its tough subject matter, and a lot less black-and-white than it could have been. Thank heavens. I don’t think I could have endured another film like Stepmom so soon after recovering from my viewing of it.
Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger: Jerry Maguire), a writer for New York Magazine, is asked by her father, George (William Hurt: Lost in Space, Dark City), to move home to help take care of her mother, Kate (Meryl Streep: Out of Africa, The Deer Hunter), while Mom goes through some nasty chemotherapy for cancer. Okay, maybe the lines are drawn just a little too sharply here, between the kind of life Ellen leads and the lifestyle of her parents. Ellen is “cold and insensitive” and “too ambitious”; she dresses all in black and has a rocky relationship with her jerk boyfriend. When she asks for time off to care for her mother, her boss thinks it’s a ploy to get a promotion; when Ellen relays her shock at the idea, the boss dismisses it with “Ellen, this is New York.” (I’ve worked in New York publishing for more than a decade, and I have never come across this kind of callousness; since One True Thing is based on a semiautobiographical novel by Anna Quindlen, a New York journalist, I’ll accept that she might have been witness to something similar. However, it still doesn’t quite excuse the boss as a story device.)

Contrast that with the apparently idyllic life of Ellen’s parents in their gorgeous New England town: Dad is an English professor, a National Book Award winner; Mom makes Martha Stewart look like a slacker; their huge, beautiful house would make Laura Ashley drool with envy; Ellen’s handsome, athletic little bro Brian (Tom Everett Scott: The Love Letter) attends Harvard and shoots hoops in the yard amongst the fallen autumn leaves. It’s all right out of a magazine.

At first, I did think I was on track to witness another Stepmom with One True Thing. Ellen gives up her job (Dad has “a department to run,” so it would be impossible for him to care for his wife) and must learn how to be a housewife. Isn’t it hilarious, how undomestic she is? early scenes seem to ask us. I was real ready to be pissed off.

But after that initial heavy-handed opener, the movie starts to allow the characters and the situation to show some cracks. Dad is a bigger jerk than we could have imagined, Brian is not the perfect college boy we thought he was, and Mom isn’t quite the happy homemaker she pretends to be. In fact, One True Thing becomes less the cancer porn I was afraid it would be (Streep’s performance as a cancer patient is painfully realistic — she never gets that golden glow movie cancer patients tend to) and more a story about how children — here, Ellen — eventually end up learning more about the darker realities of their parents’ relationship than they probably ever wanted to know, and in the process, discover the humanity of their parents. And it perfectly captures a particular kind of generation gap between daughters like Ellen (and me) and moms like Kate (and my mom): Not only do women like Ellen and me not want to live our mothers’ lives — subservient to house and husband and even children, their lives totally wrapped up in caring for others — we can’t even understand why our mothers aren’t more frustrated with the lack of appreciation they receive. To its credit, One True Thing doesn’t attempt to reconcile the two points of view, but it does at least bring it to light, which I don’t think I’ve seen before on film.

One thing that Kate and Ellen would probably agree on, though, is One True Thing‘s other theme (also handled in a nicely balanced way): that there are way too many men in the world who think that the world revolves around them and their problems. But then, most women would probably agree with that.

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