August: Osage County

The family unit is a societal and cultural structure ingrained in most of our lives.  Every family has its quirks, and every family deals with both tragedy and triumph.  Families endure everything from illness and death to incarceration and addiction.  It’s the love and the loss that makes the world go ‘round, and no family is immune from heartache or difficulty.  Moreover, there are common threads found in every family, regardless of class or culture.

For example, even though we love our mothers to death, most people can agree that there are times when you simply want to say,  “Shut up Ma!”  You’d never say it, but mothers have a knack for speaking their minds unabashedly – much to the chagrin of their children.  But we can’t choose our family, and most of us love our relatives for better or worse.  In August: Osage County, director John Wells (The Company Men) explores familial themes through the relationships and trials of the Weston family, a dysfunctional Midwestern clan.

Beverly (Sam Shepard, Mud) and Violet Weston (Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady) are parents to three adult children, though the family unit hasn’t been intact since the girls came of age.  Beverly is a functioning alcoholic, and Violet is a pill-addicted shrew.  She is suffering with Cancer, but her sharp tongue tempers any sympathy.  The eldest daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts, Mirror Mirror) and Karen (Juliette Lewis, Due Date) moved away and haven’t looked back, while youngest daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) remained behind as caretaker.  The opening scene is jarring, with Streep diving headfirst into the role.  It’s so bad it’s good – her character is suffering and it’s uncomfortable to watch, but Streep’s performances always seem like a master class.

When a shocking tragedy reunites everyone, curious family dynamics are revealed.  There’s sibling rivalry, buried secrets, infidelity, sexual taboos – you name it.  It might sound salacious and melodramatic, but realism permeated the film.  The characters’ problems were real, not contrived.  I could relate to the daughters’ frustrations as their mother offered well intentioned but unsolicited advice that went far beyond the pale.

I’ve been making the effort to see most of the Oscar nominees, and August: Osage County has two nominations for Best Actress (Streep) and Best Supporting Actress (Roberts).  The veterans didn’t mail it in here, and I’m sure they are in strong contention in their respective categories.  The entire cast delivered, with Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate) and Margo Martindale turning in surprisingly honest performances.  This is the type of movie that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, but strength of script and the dramatic talents of a laudable cast.  I was most struck by the film’s sense of truthfulness.  I almost felt like a fly on the wall, and the realism underscored the film’s effectiveness.  My only minor complaint is that the setting felt static, with most of the movie happening in one environment.  But I’m nitpicking.  Bottom line: an understated but memorable film with strong performances from seasoned veterans and supporting cast alike.  Grade: B+

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