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'True': Honest to Goodness

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 1998

  Movie Critic

One True Thing
No sob sisters: Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger, quietly earning tears from moviegoers. (Universal)

Carl Franklin
Meryl Streep;
Renee Zellweger;
Nicky Katt;
William Hurt;
Tom Everett Scott
Running Time:
2 hours, 8 minutes
Contains profanity and adult situations
Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. By the time they're 7, most kids recognize these wondrous beings for who they really are: Dad in a beard or Mom tiptoeing through the night. It takes another 20 years, sometimes more, to realize that Mom and Dad are childhood illusions, too.

Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger), a zealous magazine reporter, makes that unnerving discovery in "One True Thing," an uplifting, superbly acted and intelligent family drama about how little we know about those who love us best.

Drawn from Anna Quindlen's 1995 novel, the moving story centers on Ellen's return to her picket-fence home town over the holidays to care for her cancer-stricken mother, Kate (Meryl Streep). Though rife with potential for cloying sentimentality, the movie works because director Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress") is not one to tug on the heartstrings. And with few exceptions, he and screenwriter Karen Croner ("Cold Sassy Tree") approach the story with humor, sensitivity and restraint rather than easy sentiment.

The film opens at an inquiry into Kate's death, which the district attorney suspects may have been a mercy killing. Ellen's testimony introduces a series of flashbacks that gradually form an intricate Gulden family album. It's nothing at all like Ellen's sun-dappled childhood memories.

As Daddy's little girl, Ellen has always idolized her father, George (William Hurt), a self-absorbed professor of literature who is the antithesis of her mother, a cheery faculty wife tirelessly devoted to her family, friends and community. Absorbed in her baking, her gardening and her crafts, Kate is the last of the happy homemakers.

Ellen's contempt for her mother is undisguised, but Kate is too loving to chide her daughter or complain. Then, Ellen is forced to confront her greatest fear. "The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother's life," she observes, "and here I am living it."

Gradually, she realizes that her father is hardly the great and good man she believed him to be, nor is Kate merely a chipper, cookie-baking nitwit. And after wearing Kate's apron for a time, she is awed and humbled by all that her mother has accomplished in what was a wonderful life.

Streep, in an honest, unaffected performance, and Zellweger, outstanding in her central role, are so compelling in their conflict and so luminous in their subsequent reconciliation that even the blandest of domestic scenes gain dramatic heft.

"One True Thing," with its insights into relationships and its emphasis on old-fashioned values, is the kind of film that is increasingly relegated to TV. In Hollywood, the prevailing wisdom is that women's pictures don't belong on the big screen. It's reserved for more important things, like dinosaurs and explosions.

But movies like this show that the prevailing wisdom is just so much guff, and that a real movie, like this one, has the courage to make us think about the way we live our lives.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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