ORDINARY PEOPLE -- AMC Carollton, K-B MacArthur, NTI Annandale and Roth's Montgomery.

Now capable of wrenching tears from empathetic viewers, "Ordinary People" may provoke detached amusement, or even hilarity, in future audiences. p

This is not because it is bad but, on the contrary, because it depicts the current Zeitgeist with exquisite precision, endowing it with solemn universality. Life totally understood in terms of a complete and consistent moral formula, such as medieval chivalry or Victorian respectability, is always a scream when its assumptions pass out of fashion.

The film, directed by Robert Redford, has the same polished veneer as the Judith Guest novel on which it is based. The story of a boy's re-entry into family and school life after a mental breakdown, it is of strikingly high quality. Redford apparently has a fine eye, and the ability to draw the very best from veteran actors Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, as well as from a youngster, Timothy Hutton. The entire cast, to the smallest parts, are excellent. And the dialogue, costumes and settings are so perfectly appropriate that they approach satire.

But the premise is a deadly serious endorsement of reigning psychotherapeutic dogma -- the same litany that is now being vehemently questioned from inside and outside the profession in major government arenas.

There is only one character in this film who does not subscribe to the idea that constant talking about one's intimate feelings, crying and "expressing" anger (shouting obscenities) are essential to mental health. Every shred of dialogue attest to this -- the community is one big therapeutic center, where schoolmates, business acquaintances and neighbors constantly give their diagnoses of other people's psyches (the standard conversation opens with "You look . . .") and then make the supreme offer of help: "Do you want to talk about it?"

The one dissenter is the boy's mother, and she is the villain. Mothers are always the villians, of course -- there was no pause between the time that their crime was smothering over-concern and when it became selfish unconcern. The sure signs of a rejecting nature, in this mother, are neatness and reticence. She dismisses a maid for not keeping the house dusted, and she is angry when her husband tells the mother of one of the boy's friends that he is seeing a psychiatrist.

Another age might consider her efficient and dignified. Surely wanting a lid on family gossip could be called respect for the boy's privacy. Her plea for a family Chrismas trip to London -- "It'll be like Dickens" -- could also be a sensible way of seeking relief from regurgitating past troubles. But here it can only be interpreted as a vicious attempt to sabotage therapy. And any such questioning of the infallible faith is wicked.

But because the book is so well written, and because Moore plays the part so skillfully, it's possible to take a better view of this character than the creators intended. Aside from outright rejection of her child -- which seems as phony a rap here as it did when put on the mother in "Kramer vs. Kramer" -- her behavior can be interpreted as a desire to put tragedy behind her and get on with life.

Consider her behavior when the husband to whom she had been actively loving and loyal for 21 years starts whining such cliche accusations as "I don't know if you're really giving" and "I don't know who you are." Instead of plunging into guilt and soul talk, she fights back her tears and leaves. Given the possibility that prevailing faith in talk therapy may be misplaced -- as the government is now questioning -- an audience not bound by such belief may want to stand up and cheer: Another Nora is slamming another door.