Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mother Daughter Traditions

Nathalie Davidson

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in August: Osage County

August: Osage County is the film adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning play by Tracy Letts. But, this isn’t the reason why my mom and I wanted to watch August: Osage County. Over winter break while I was home from college, she and I made a pact to watch all of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. We had a lot of time on our hands in January. My mom, who is normally full of moxie and always on the go, had been suffering from inexplicable headaches. We spent most of our time between hospital visits quietly sitting on the couch or going to the movies. We began our cinematic journey with The Wolf of Wall Street, which is not the ideal film for anyone feeling ill, but we had to keep our promise. We continued with Her, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, and although not nominated for Best Picture, August: Osage County. As avid Meryl Streep fans, we were excited to see her in all her Academy Award nominated glory.

August: Osage County is the story of a dysfunctional family brought together by the disappearance, and eventual death, of patriarch Beverly Weston, played by Sam Shepard. Meryl Streep plays his wife, Violet Weston, a doped up, violent woman who suffers from mouth cancer. Her venomous words spread anger and hate throughout the family members. Unlike other nominated movies, Osage County does not rely on action to move the plot forward. Conversations and horrifying revelations pile on top of each other, leaving audience members aghast and exhausted by the end of the film. My mother and I had plans to sneak into another movie theater to watch Dallas Buyer’s Club, but by its end, Osage County had worn us out.

Family spats and arguments comprise most of the film. The actors are constrained to the Weston home in the middle of Oklahoma, leaving moviegoers feeling claustrophobic. In the play, the actors have the space of the stage to move and speak. The camera often hones in on Meryl Streep at points of tension and for much of the film, we’re constrained to close-ups of family members during arguments. Every once in a while, during these tense arguments, I would notice my mother checking her phone. I glared at her to stop texting her friends and she shrugged her shoulders at me. Images of fields and wide-open spaces (or texting) are the only relief we get from the Weston family. Without this respite, we’re stuck with no space to breathe in the uncomfortably tense home. Parts of August: Osage County are so uncomfortable that you have to look away.

After the film ended, my mom and I briefly discussed the movie. One of the scenes we found most interesting was when Violet Weston shares a sad and tragic childhood story with her three daughters played by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis. Violet reveals that her mother was, although hard to believe, even crueler of a mother than she currently is. Violet is a selfish woman and her pleasure in disguising her insults as merely "truth tellings" is nothing short of cruel. Yet in this scene, we come to understand that Violet's upbringing and her difficult relationship with her mother are responsible for this behavior. Meryl Streep’s performance makes us see that though Violet’s actions are cruel, Violet is not a fundamentally cruel person, and we begin to feel empathic towards this complicated family. Violet tells a story about her first childhood crush and wanting a pair of boots similar to his. She begged her mother for the boots and her mother hinted that perhaps Violet would be receiving boots for Christmas. On Christmas morning, Violet ran to unwrap her present only to discover that the boots she so coveted were not there but, instead, broken men’s work boots caked with mud and feces. In this sad revelation, the daughters respond with cold attitudes, offering their dying mother no sympathy. Barbara, the oldest daughter, coolly asks, “Is that the end of the story?”
The scene particularly moved my mother, who had also lost her mother to cancer. When you have such a close relationship to your family, it's hard to imagine mistreating your loved ones like Barbara abuses her mother and vice versa. Out of the three sisters, Barbara, played by Julia Roberts, has the most difficult relationship with her mother. Eventually, Barbara’s unfaithful husband Bill, played by lackluster Ewan McGregor, leaves her for similar reasons Beverley Weston left Violet. Much like her mother, Barbara is now left alone in the house in Oklahoma. The Weston women are simply too cold and too mean. They cannot hold on to their loved ones because of their rough edges that while some have tried, no one has managed to soften.

Throughout the film, I kept on sneaking glances at my mother to watch her reactions. Countless times I’ve heard stories about my own grandmother who passed away from cancer. My grandmother loved going to the movies. Until my mother started working, my grandmother did not have enough money or time to enjoy films. As soon as she had enough money, my mother began taking my grandmother to the movies. Mother daughter movie dates became a tradition. Within the stories my mother tells me about my grandmother, she also tells me which movies my grandmother would have liked. As a woman who unfortunately suffered verbal abuse from her husband, August: Osage County would have hit a little too close to home. The uncomfortable experience of watching family members berate each other is difficult to watch in anyway situation but I cannot imagine watching the movie and having experienced similar abuse from a family member. 

I had a strong urge to hug my mom at the end of the film. While Barbara and Violet’s relationship is sick and twisted, with both women insulting each other and their family, they are still mother and daughter. There’s a sensation of something missing in this film, and that might be what makes it a remarkable experience. The sad relationship between Violet and Barbara struck a nerve in both of us. Regardless of their unhealthy relationship, family is family.

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