DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of One True Thing and related items (Going Home, Solas, Goodbye Lenin, A Vow to Cherish, We Were the Mulvaneys, Assisted Living, October Sky, The Astronaut Farmer, Billy Elliot, (Center Stage), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , A Child’s Wish , Half a Dozen Babies, Venus, The Savages, Away from Her, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Time of their Lives, My Sister’s Keeper, A Family Is a Family Is a Family)


Title:  One True Thing

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 120 Min

MPAA Rating:  R

Distributor and Production Company:  Universal

Director; Writer:  Carl Franklin, novel by Anna Quindlen, screenplay adaptation by Karen Croner


Cast:   Meryl Stryp, William Hurt

Technical: 35 mm

Relevance to doaskdotell site: “family values”



Movie Review: One True Thing; Universal; Rated R; 120 Minutes; with Meryl Stryp and William Hurt; 9.0/10. 

This film deals with a demographic time bomb: aging parents. The movie plays on our sympathy with a situation that seems a bit contrived, but perhaps not so set up after all.

A college English professor (William Hurt) conscripts his yuppie daughter to take care of his wife (Meryl Stryp) (her mother) who has only a few months to live with aggressive cancer. The daughter is expected to give up her entire career (almost) as a journalist and her boyfriend, and start living "her mother's life" which is very proper, protected, suburbanized life. Since she's not a wife and mother yet, her own life isn't "that important." Well, it turns out the college prof doesn't want to give up any of his classes or giving card quizzes (although his son has just flunked American lit. and probably some other humanities.) Maybe he can’t stand the idea of intimacy with a spouse with (probably breast) cancer.  Sounds unpleasant; a touch of Theodore Dreiser-style realism

The story is framed by the girl's interview with a county prosecutor, after the mother's death from an overdose of morphine. Did she commit suicide, or did the family members virtually compelled to take care of her regard her as a "burden" requiring too much sacrifice.

Going Home  (2000)

A gentler treatment of the same theme is the NBC TV movie Going Home, broadcast March 12, 2000, with Jason Robards and Sherry Springfield.  This time an unmarried career woman, deep into her career in conventional big-house publishing, feels duty-bound to go home to take care of her father, who suffers not from Alzheimer’s, but more normal aging and depression at his discovery of what it is like to become a widower. Her married-with-kids sister, unable to handle Dad, scolds her, “you’re not married, you’re out of it.” She tries to bargain, to get her Dad to move to New York with her, but he can’t stomach the idea of city life when he has all he needs at home (memories and his own generation of friends). So she talks her boss into letting her work from home in rural Virginia (looks more like the LA suburbs). Her dad starts getting better because of the companionship.  At one point she says, “He’s my dad he’s not just an obligation.” But one of her friends says, “He’s had his turn.”  Dad overhears and is now mentally alert enough to kick her out, back to her career in New York. But, ironically, she now wants to pass up being a senior editor and start writing herself.  Well, why not do both?  Conflict of interest?


THE HYMENS PARABLE (review moved to

SOLAS  (“Alone”)  (2000, in Spanish)

Here comes a small masterpiece about family loyalty from Spain (“Europe ends at the Pyrennes”), filmed on location in Seville, no less—and not the tourist Sevilla but the slums and railroad tracks, looking more like East L.A,  Maria Galiana plays an elderly woman mending her relationship with her daughter (Ana Fernandez) when her husband has surgery.  Other little subplots deal with the problems of the aging as they struggle to stay independent.  The music score is schmaltzym rather reminiscent of Strauss’s Metamorphesen. When will the Spanish film industry delve into the tough problems of regional “nationalism,” the political and social unrest over the Basques (as well as their origins) and the like?  The title of this film reminds me of the 1976 Russian sci-fi masterpiece, Solaris.      

(Book by Alexander Bove: The Complete Book of Wills and Trusts)

One subject matter that invokes the notion of loyalty to blood family is, of course, wills and trusts. Particularly controversial can be the “dead hand” or the “hand from the grave” (as in some of George Elliot’s 19th century novels) where the testator controls the behavior of his beneficiaries by conditions placed upon his bequests.  According to most popular books on wills, the proper way to do this is through a trust. But The Complete Book of Wills and Trusts (2nd Edition, Henry Holt, 2000), by Alexander A. Bove, discusses conditional bequests quite openly.  Indeed, one can place a condition subsequent on a bequest and require a beneficiary to return his inheritance years later (to the estate or to other heirs) if some behavioral condition is not met, like staying married, not marrying out of one’s faith, or, if one were unmarried, not moving away geographically from parents or providing personal care for parents.  


Think what happens as our aging population explodes with Alzheimer’s, and as states, overwhelmed with Medicaid nursing home costs. There could develop political pressure to start requiring children (at least those with no dependents) to spend down their own resources, too. It could really happen in our liberal world. Is that what we mean by the right to life?

But "one true thing" is certainly unconditional love within family.

Goodbye Lenin (2003, R, 118 min, dir. Wolfgang Becker, in German, Sony Pictures Classics) also presents the family loyalty problem in a kind of bizarre art comedy. Alex (Daniel Bruhl) has grown up in East Germany (the GDR) with his mother Christianne (Katrin Sass), who in the “good old days” taught communist ideology to children while making it look fair and appetizing. Her son likeable Alex grows up surprisingly independent for the circumstances. Alex is arrested in the October 1989 protests at the Berlin Wall, and his mother, seeing him carted away and beaten, has a heart attack. Alex gets out of jail to see her, and eventually she comes out of a coma. The doctor tells Alex that she cannot survive any emotional shock, so Alex and his friends redecorate the apartment and make convincing videos to show his mother that communism is still in place and that the West is falling. Alex almost comes to believe it, and that is a curious paradox as he is only too willing to take advantage of western consumerism and freedom when it suits his purpose, away from his mother.

Now you have the question of setting up a lie to protect family—I have always been one to confront people with the truth, no matter what.But – “She’s your mother!” So the whole setup seems hollow and artsy, if a bit funny. (For one scene Alex is wrapped in bandages and casts.) Of course, Alex is trying to give his mother value by honoring her past, which she does not necessarily expect to bring into the future—an interesting perspective.

The movie’s climax includes fireworks spectaculars over Berlin. Remember that Leonard Bernstein recorded Beethoven’s Ninth there on Christmas Day in 1989 (a point the movie missed).

When I was in Berlin in May 1999, I met, at the Connection Disco, a young graduate student who had been born in Leipzig (in the GDR), been allowed to leave and grow up in Britain, where he was then a graduate student at the University of Birmingham. He spoke like a Brit.  But he had known freedom his whole life and, especially as a gay man, appreciated it. 

A Vow To Cherish (1999, World Wide Pictures/Billy Graham, dir. John Schmidt), presents a family challenged by the mother’s (Barbara Babcock) early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Clinically, her disease is quite aggressive and sometimes manifested by hostile behavior. As with many church-based pictures, this movie has some really harrowing scenes, as when she collapses giving a speech, forgets students’ names while trying to teach and having to resign, then later tries to drive to school and “invade” her old classroom. The husband (Ken Howard) feels forced to give up his executive partnership at work, after being pressured by the company to put his wife into a nursing home. “She is my wife!” At first, this movie would seem to be about the uneven and unpredictable sacrifices required by “family responsibility” but gradually the script (as expected from Billy Graham) turns to matters of Faith. A person is not supposed to cling to control over his own life as a matter of pride; he is supposed to be open to changing through serving others so he can be Saved (Mark 10:43-45). Another point is not just the sexual fidelity but the ongoing emotional commitment demanded by the vows of marriage, a capacity harder and harder these days for adults who have to spend so much energy on themselves.

Early on the movie has some pointed dialogue, as when mother early on says to her husband, “With men, the legs are the first to go,” a phrase repeated at least twice later (does this refer to the tendency for middle-aged men to go bald in the legs? A weird reference in a Christian movie.)

We Were the Mulvaney’s (Lifetime, 2002, dir. Peter Werner, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, 100 min, est PG-13), features Beau Bridges as a patriarchal Irish Catholic family man in upstate New York, who shames his daughter (Tammy Blanchard) when she is raped. Out of “loyalty to blood” (as in a Jake 2.0 episode) the oldest son, college student Patrick (Jacob Pitts) plots revenge and draws the youngest son Judd (Tom Guiry) into the plot, risking prison for family honor. Tensions reduce however, and the family members, while spread to the winds, redeem themselves upon the patriarch’s death, as Patrick becomes a special education teacher. The movie provides a valuable morality play on the importance of blood family loyalty and family responsibility for its own sake.


Assisted Living (Economic Projections, 2003, dir. Elliot Greenebaum, 77 min., sug. PG-13) presents the issue of working with the disabled elderly (and small children) for a living—when you’re a drifting male who may have taken the job in an assisted living facility because custodial care institutions have trouble staffing up. Eldercare, as noted above, is a social problem and a moral partly because sufficient help can be hard to hire. Actually, assisted living provides a less intensive level of care than does a nursing home, and many facilities provide condominiums or rental apartments (very pricey) with common areas and meals and assistance care when needed. The movie was filmed at a Masonic home in Louisville, KY. The viewer gets the sense that most of the residents (call them that, not “patients”) were once vigorous young, middle-aged or only slightly less elderly adults, and many of them now seem to have lost their way as to knowing who they really are or were, as they fill their days with television, pets (Mandy is a wonderful dog, and there is a fat cat), and particularly Bingo. Todd (Michael Bonsignore) is a 27-year-old, somewhat scruffy but personable man who is usually late for work and often a bit careless with his job (letting the dog out). He meets a borderline Alzheimer’s disease patient Mrs. Pearlman (Maggie Riley) and, by picking up a phone “secretly” in another room, impersonates her long lost (and maybe dead) son in Australia. He bonds with her as the deception works and seems very touching. The movie is episodic, and is a slice of life or open ended short story, allowing the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions. I saw this at Landmark in Washington DC, one day after the director was in town.


October Sky (1999); Universal Pictures; dir Joe Johnston, 110 Minutes; Rating: PG; 9.0/10;

Some people may find this film about saccharine, but it presents the problem of "self-ownership," just as did One True Thing, but in a feel-good fashion. Precocious and charismatic seventeen-year-old Homer Hickum decides he will do with his life what he wants to do, which is build rockets and go into space someday. Nevertheless, his father insists he remain "loyal" to his family and his town, and follow his footsteps as a coal miner, a job which Homer already sees as self-sacrificial and dead-end. At one point, when his dad gets hurt, Homer has to drop out of school and work in the mines (although the older brother insists that going to work his "my responsibility"). When must one live within the limits of the "group" that have reared him? But eventually he does get to present his rockets in a science fair, go to college, and get out of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. The underground mining scenes are graphic. But Homer turns out to be a real hero, and role-model.

Remember, in 1957 after the Sputnik launch by the Soviets, we collectively "needed" rocket scientists more than we needed coal miners or 11B infrantrymen. Or did we?

But I personally did the opposite, forsaking music (piano) for science and math because of the Cold War (and draft deferments).

Coal mining, and our karmic dependence on it (especially underground mining) was underscored by the Sago / Tallsmanville WVa tragedy in early 2006. The tragedy also illustrates the dependence of workers in this kind of industry on family loyalty. I visited the Beckley, WVa underground mine in May 1991.

The Astronaut Farmer (2007, Warner Bros./Polish Brothers, dir. Mark and Michael Polish, 104 min, PG). The two brothers had directed the great plains fantasy “Northfork” and here they try to make a film that merges eclectic auteurmanship with family values. This is a wholesome family film (with a definitely libertarian edge as to the politics), with a simple story line that at first glance would sound like a variation of “October Sky”, but then you start thinking about where the material could have gone. Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton – who else?) is a West Texas rancher who faces foreclosure because of farm prices. (Remember the movie “The River” with Mel Gibson?) He has a warm fatherly relationship with his wife Audrey (Virginia Madsen), teenage son Shepard (Max Thieriot) and two daughters. Then why does he put his family at risk by his plan to launch his own private spaceship into orbit? Family responsibility (which here he has chosen by having kids) had, according to the script, forced him to leave the formal NASA space program. The movie shows him and his son working together on the spaceship, which even gets destroyed once in a misfire. He has to deal with the instusive g-men in black – the FBI and FAA, both wielding the USA Patriot Act and spying on his illegal purchases of jet fuel.  The government holds a hearing in a school gym, and ask him if he is a terrorist making a WMD. He attacks his banker, and gets psychiatric evaluation from the school nurse. (The parents can be disciplined as well as the kids at this public school, I guess.) So he home schools his kids, more in a libertarian than Christian right perspective. The teenager Max certainly is learning to become an aeronautical engineer, and, given the young character’s potential, he has relatively little to do with the actual story. That is where I think Polish misses the mark with a story like this. I’ve experimented with a couple of screenplays where younger characters get unusual insight into the possibility of angelic or alien contact and that concept drives my plot – as the older characters (in one case, a journalist) are put through tribunals for the space travel opportunity. But that’s complicated to pull off.

The movie is filmed, Cinemascope, on location in New Mexico and west Texas, with one shot of the Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo.

BILLY ELLIOT (2000, USA Films, dir. Stephen Dawdry)

Another film where a teenager breaks away from his family pressures to achieve his dream is the partially fictional Billy Elliot (2000), from Universal Focus, starring Jamie Bell (as Billy), Julie Walters, Jamie Draven, directed by Stephen Daidry.  Billy takes up dancing lessons in the shadow of coal strikes of northern England, and overcomes the taunts of peers and especially his father to win a class seat in a London ballet school after a stormy audition (in which he shows his own capacity for retaliation, with real fists). Mentally precocious teenager Jamie Bell was interviewed by CNN, and pointed out that pro “wrestlers” are more likely to be “pansies” than male ballet dancers. The fact that ballet is one of the most demanding of sports was also demonstrated by the Columbia release Center Stage (2000, dir. Nicholas Hytner), in which heterosexuality was celebrated.  Perhaps we can look forward to films about skating, and cycling (we had Kevin Costner in the 1985 medical paradox American Flyers, but would expect a film about Lance Armstrong) and “making the band” (the rigors of making a “boy band” in “O-town” (Orlando), already a series on ABC and MTV. Compare also to “Step Up.”


Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005, Warner Bros./Village Roadshow, dir. Tim Burton, book by Roald Dahl, PG, 115 min), despite looking like a kids’ movie, is, in fact, a very adult political satire. You know the basic story. Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) lives with his parents and three family elders in a shack. The local chocolate factory has been closed for years, but the owner Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) has a lottery where five kids who find golden tickets in a purchased chocolate bar get to take a tour of the factory. What a fantastic place it is!  Freddie wins one and goes, and the other four kids self-destruct. So Willy wants to give Freddie the factory to run, as long as he comes by himself without his family.


Of course here is the core of the social commentary. Freddie says his family is far more important to him than a “career.”  Remember, Freddie is still a boy and not old enough to have even made the choice to start his own family. He accepts family responsibility as pre-existing regardless of having made such a choice himself. There is a conversation about family meaning mutual support and protection at the cost of personal creativity. That’s pretty much hits the moral question on the head. Willy is a self-made man who did not raise a family or need one. In flashbacks, we learn that he was raised by a single-parent dentist who kept his face wired in braces and forbad candy. (Actually, pop is pretty bad for teeth, even diet coke, because of the carbonic acid!!)  His factory is a wonder of science and fantasy, but his behavior with the kids borders on sociopathy. (Okay, he warns and tempts them, “Enjoy yourselves! Just please don’t touch anything!” But of course they do.) He entices one kid to eat a gum stick as an MRE and the kid turns into a giant blueberry (starting out with a lesion on her nose that resembles Kaposi’s sarcoma).  Another girl is enticed into what looks like a phantasmagoric rendition of a black hole Schwarzchild radius (the “garbage heap”) and pushed in by squirrels who test her head and find her a bat nut. Another little boy goes for teleportation into a television set (Stephen King tried this, too), with Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra playing (the TV scene is the apes in 2001, with the chocolate bar as the Slab) Willy seems to like only the kids who are intact enough to be on his “level” and is perfectly happy to let the other kids throw themselves away. This sequence has a relevance to education today in the world of “No Child Left Behind.”


The script takes some pot-shots at corporate restructurings, plant closings, and mass layoffs due to automation. The film is quite spectacular to watch, with garish and yet subtle colors and detail (the plant exterior looks like something on another planet), and is shown in Imax in some cities; regular theater versions are with the flat (1.85 to 1) aspect ratio. 


A Child’s Wish (1997, Lions Gate/Lifetime/CBS, dir. Waris Hussein, wr. Susan Nanus, 96 min, PG). The title reminds me of the slow movement from Beethoven’s first piano sonata, a movement often called “a child’s prayer.”  Actually, the heroine or protagonist is a teenager, about 16, and honor student, Missy (Anna Chlumsky). The time is late 1991, during the first Bush presidency. She is stricken with connective tissue sarcoma in her knee, and the ramifications will go all the way to the White House. The film builds up the story in a series of calamities that go with any tear jerker, but in this movie there are strong political and moral lessons. Her dad is a car salesman, and the car dealership is at first supportive, but when he keeps taking time off and when the dealership’s insurance rates go up, he is “let go” and told rather insensitively that he can pay for his own health coverage through COBRA for eighteen months. (At one point, an assistant manager says, “his kid is sick, it isn’t his fault,” and the Big Boss says, “I know, but it isn’t mine either.”)  Her leg is amputated and she is fit with a prosthesis, but in time, despite brutal chemotherapy, the cancer spreads to her lungs. In the mean time, she and her family testify at hearing designed to promote the Family and Medical Leave Act. It fails, but when Bill Clinton is elected, it passes.  Along the way her boyfriend Scott (Karl David-Djerf) stands by her. Eventually Dad (John Ritter) gets a job with another dealership at much less pay, a development that seems to argue for a more libertarian attitude to family calamities. Finally, she is put in touch with the Make a Wish Foundation, which leads to her meeting President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office just before her passing. President Clinton appears in the film.


We all know now that the FMLA is of limited effectiveness, because the leave is unpaid, of limited duration, and only works with people who work for larger employers for wages. The deeper moral question follows that of several other films on this page. Families and individuals share burdens very inequitably. Laissez-faire gives people the freedom to work these problems out their own way, but the brutal fact is that sometimes people cannot do what they want with their lives because of the needs of other family members.


Half a Dozen Babies (1999, Wildrice, dir. Douglas Barr) is another TV film that celebrates family and lineage for its own sake. A young couple, in desperation, takes fertility drugs and is rewarded with sextuplets. The husband Keith Dilley (Scott Reeves) is a fast food manager and unable to support his family himself. His wife Becki (Melissa Reeves, apparently a real-life acting couple here) is a nurse, so he becomes the house husband. Earlier, however, she is on bed rest during pregnancy, so the movie underscores the sacrifice demanded by a multiple birth, especially outside of the couple. There is conflict with the grandmother, who desperately wants to be involved.


Venus (2006, Miramax/Film Four, dir. Roger Michell, 95 min, R, UK). Maurice and Ian (Peter O’Toole and Leslie Phillips) are two actors in their seventies, in an affectionate friendship, both fearing the end of days. Ian invites his “grand niece” (Jodie Whitaker as Jessie – “Venus” ) to move in to take care of him, or them, but is put off by her lifestyle and posing nude for paintings. Maurice, in the meantime, starts a series of medical crises from his prostate cancer. To prolong his life, he faces surgery, shaving, incontinence, and probably chemical emasculation. There is one scene where a nurse, carrying a razor, talks about these matters with candor. After surgery, he stabilizes for a while and develops his own kind of “relationship” with Jodie, whose boyfriend calls him a “dirty old man” and starts a fight. There is a bit of ephebophilia, but Jodie is certainly a legal adult. Even so, the relationship is mostly affection. On the beach, Maurice says, “we can talk now” and then suddenly passes away. Some of the music is interesting. There is string quartet music that the credits attribute to Erik Satie, but it reminded me of the mesto theme from Bartok's last string quartet, which would have been appropriate. 


The Savages (2007, Fox Searchlight / Lone Star Film Group, dir. wr. Tamara Jenkins, 113 min, R). An old man Lenny Savage (Philip Bosco) has lived in a common law relationship with senior female who dies suddenly in a beauty parlor, with relatives of the woman in Arizona. He becomes disoriented and demented. When a home health aide refuses to flush the toilet for him, he writes on the bathroom mirror with excrement. That sets up a call to his two estranged adult children, a literature professor Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking overweight and old enough himself), and aspiring playwright Wendy (Laura Linney).  They are contacted, and soon we have some of the weighty issues of eldercare with sibling rivalry. They travel to AZ, and are told that the “common law marriage” gave no rights and that their dad has no right to live there. So they must place him in a nursing home. They take him back to Buffalo, NY, but not before Lenny almost causes the flight to have to land because of his antics in flight, quite challenging to flight attendants. Fortunately, the nursing home takes Medicaid (and I don’t think New York State has a filial responsibility law). Once in the home, Wendy has her guilt trip and wants to place him in a nicer place. The siblings start taunting each other about who is the most selfish and in denial of filial responsibility. Jon says that to Wendy, “why are you so self—absorbed, why can’t you do more for someone else?”  To be more specific, Wendy’s credentials as a playwright seem questionable—let’s say she has never established her “notability” with the literary world. Even her pets become involved in the story – the cat is taken to the nursing home and turns out to be the grim reaper, able to tell when Kenny is going to die. 


Away From Her (2006, Lions Gate / Foundry, dir. Sarah Polley, story: Alice Munro, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” 110 min, PG-13, Canada) Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinset), living out retirement in the Ontario lake country, must cope with the memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease of his wife of 44 years, Fiona (Julie Christie). Her memory loss is inconsistent, as she says there is bliss in oblivion and that she feels that she is “disappearing.” He goes through the agonizing process of placing her in assisted living, where he cannot even visit her for the first thirty days. She begins to transfer her affections to another patient, Aubrey (Michael Murphy) who does not “confuse” her, because he is mute. Grant is forced to confront how his love for a half century is to be tested. In time, she faces transfer to the nursing home floor as her disease progresses. In Canada, the single payer system does not by itself take care of custodial care (just as in the US).  A film like this could be challenging if it were about an unmarried adult child in the situation and has a US setting.  I would expect to see this film on Lifetime in due course.


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (“Le scaphandre et le papillon”, 2007, Miramax / Pathe, dir. Julian Schnabel, book by Jean-Dominque Bauby, 110 min, France, R) is a fascinating study of the world from the viewpoint of a stroke victim (Mathieu Amalric) with locked-in syndrome. Blogger review is here.    


The Time of their Lives (2008, BBC, dir. Jocelyn Cammack, 68 min) Active, geeky seniors in a North London home. Blogger.


My Sister’s Keeper (2009, New Line, dir. Nick Cassavetes, novel by Jodi Picoult). A girl seeks medical emancipation when her parents use her body to save her older sister with leukemia. Blogger. 


A Family Is a Family Is a Family (2010, HBO, dir. Rosie O’Donnell, 38 min, sug PG-13).  HBO original on Rosie O’Donnell’s view of the new family, including same-sex parents. But there is a lot on the obligation to other family members, such as in China where male children must take care of their parents. Blogger.


Related reviews: Latter Days    The Hymens Parable    Step Up, The Company   Northfork   The River  In the Land of Women    At Night (short)  Whose Life Is It Anyway?   Winter’s Bone


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