Saturday, February 8, 2014

August: Osage County -- truth telling

August: Osage County Movie Poster

Director: John Wells, 2013 (R)

Billed as a drama, this movie has moments of deeply dark humor, comedy bordering on cynical. I found myself laughing at much of the film, even as one viewer in the theater commented that the scene was not funny. I found it funny.

Originally August was a stage play. But Tracey Letts adapted this from her own play for the screen and the adaptation is superb. Plus Wells has peopled the strong-willed women of the play with outstanding actresses including Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both of whom have earned Oscar nominations (for Streep it is her 18th nomination).

Streep plays Violet Weston, made a widow when her husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) dies. The resulting funeral brings back her eldest and youngest daughters, Barbara (Roberts) and Karen (Juliette Lewis), who moved away from Oklahoma as soon as they could. The middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained close to her folks but at a cost to her life. Barbara brings her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and teen-aged daughter (Abigail Breslin), while Ivy brings her sports-car driving fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Then there is brother-in-law Charlie (Chris Cooper) and his wife Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and their grown son Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). With this crop of actors the film cannot fail.

Streep is a pill-pusher, eating pills to stave off her mouth cancer. But she is more than this. She is a mean, cantankerous person. And over the course of the film, this dysfunctional family self-destructs as secret after secret emerges.

One scene stands out: he post-funeral dinner at Violet's home. Charlie's grace is the best prayer I've seen in a Hollywood film in a long-time. When asked to bless the food, he begins in a slow Texan (or Oklahoman) drawl. He searches his mind for things to say, to be thankful for. And he goes on and on and on. The others are waiting to eat, but he is sincerely praying. And after the amen the fun begins. Throwing barbs like hand-grenades that explode relationally, no one dodges Violet's attention. She cuts down her own children as savagely as a marine shooting the enemy. And then she declares she is simply a "truth-teller"! This is funny, yet sad. We can all think of family dinners that have seen their share of misery and nastiness. Perhaps we have even been the one doing the "truth-telling".

This brings me to the theme: truth telling. The Bible commands us to tell the truth (Eph. 4:15). Certainly, it abhors lying (Psa. 120:2, Prov. 12:22). But Paul's command to the Ephesians was more than to tell the truth. He said, "speaking the truth in love". We cannot simply tell the truth and let the words fall where they may, like verbal shrapnel. We must balance the truth with love, with a concern for those we are speaking with. Paul devoted a whole chapter to the concept of love (1 Cor. 13), but it is clear that hurting is not loving. Violet may have been telling the truth, but her motivation was hurtful. She wanted to cause pain. And she did.

The film's woman are indeed strong and brutally honest. But two men provide the foils. Charlie has a desire to see the best in people. His prayer underscores his desire to be thoughtful and thankful. And little Charles has a sweet demeanor that emerges in a love song he composes for his girlfriend. Though belittled and considered a loser, he, too, has a heart of gold that is missed by the viciousness of the women.

If your family has a history of nasty dysfunction, this may dredge up too many bitter memories. For most of us we can picture a relative or two that might fit into this family. But it does remind us that families need nurturing rather than "truth-telling". The next time you are ready to let some painful truth fly, remember Violet and the result her words had on her family. Perhaps then your words will remain unspoken.

Copyright ©2014, Martin Baggs

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