Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger) is an investigative reporter for New York magazine who is called back to the family compound in New England for her father's surprise birthday party. Ambitious, intense, almost always dressed in black, Ellen seems to walk around under a rain cloud -- she's like a castaway from the big bad city. She has a boyfriend, though he doesn't seem to matter much in her life. She's essentially a loner, and the movie makes it clear that her aloneness is keyed to her big-city careerism and her alienation from her family.
It's also clear that George (William Hurt), Ellen's father, is the most important man in her life. A college professor and prominent intellectual and essayist, he regards his wife, Kate (Meryl Streep), as a supplicant who exists to adore him; she regards herself, happily, in much the same way. Ellen is too cynical and "liberated" to respond to her father in quite this manner, but she, too, craves his approval above everything else. And because he doles out that approval to her in teensy doses, she's miserable most of the time.
When it develops that Kate has cancer, George pretty much orders his daughter to put her job aside and move into their home as a full-time helpmate. Ellen's fears surrounding her mother's illness pale beside a greater horror -- her fear of becoming her mother. In a voice-over she tells us: "The one thing I never wanted to live was my mother's life, and there I was living it."
We're supposed to understand that Ellen has disdain for her mother's homespun wifey-wife existence -- complete with women's clubs and pies baking in the oven -- because secretly she craves that very same life. But we never see in Ellen the softness or the sympathy that might reveal such a divided soul. We don't see how she might surrender to the hearty niceties of small-town mores. She's just "difficult." And, of course, Kate, as her illness progresses and her hair falls out and her complexion blanches, reveals unexpected ballast.
It is she, and not Ellen, who has the toughness of soul to get the most from her life. She recognizes her husband's preening and philandering with co-eds for what it is -- and silently forgives him. Kate, it turns out, has chosen the role she plays. She's more wised-up than her smart-cookie city daughter, but there's no cynicism in her demeanor. She's knowingly wholesome. Ellen may dress in black, but Kate is an earth mother who favors earth tones.
By turning Kate into a standard-bearer for the prefeminist wife and mother, the movie neglects to point up what is absent from her life. We don't see how her unconcern for the passions of art and literature might limit her. Her prosaic courtesies are meant to tap a deep wellspring of feeling. George may be a brain, but all his book-learning doesn't feed the soul. Like his daughter he's a careerist, but a slicker one. His love of literature, we are made to feel, is a sham -- a way to hobnob with Ivy League snobs and one-up his family. There's a sneaky, reactionary agenda at work in One True Thing. In its own pseudosophisticated way, it sports an elitism as noxious as George's. It's thumping for an old-fashioned storybook existence uncorrupted by the life of the mind.
This is why Kate is never really shown learning anything about life -- or at least anything commendable -- from Ellen. The life lessons in this movie pretty much all run one way. And because their roles are schematically defined, the actors are never really free to radiate all their characters' emotional possibilities. William Hurt appears to be in a daze for most of the movie; he's playing a cad who exists to be brought down and then raised up. Renee Zellweger's Ellen is meant to "grow" by the end, but she still seemed pretty closed off to me. Perhaps this is because Zellweger is fighting the film's drift into ickiness. She doesn't sentimentalize Ellen's passage. But then again she doesn't bring out the depths and hollows in Ellen's cast-off countenance, either.
Meryl Streep gives the most involving performance, partly because her usual precisionlike actorishness -- the way every gesture and eyeblink seems modulated for maximum effect -- makes emotional sense here. Kate is a woman who is playing a role with such dedication that she becomes the role. There's a lovely moment outdoors at night near the end of the film when Kate takes Ellen aside after a Halloween party and asks her to listen to the hum of the town. In moments like these this woman's simple pleasures have a plangency.
But the hum of the town is itself part of the film's polemic. It's a stand-in for the resounding hum of an idealized community. In a confused world, this is a movie with answers. Heartbreak exists for these people in order to force a reconciliation and a redemption. Families are made to be mended. It's all so warm and comforting, like a cup of herbal tea. Have we all become so jaded that this engineered uplift can be touted as the one true thing?
One True Thing.
Directed by Carl Franklin. Screenplay by Karen Croner. Starring Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger, and William Hurt.