American Pastoral

 

            This is a story about a steady downward spiral.  As such it's not exactly fun to watch.  The enjoyment has to be in the performances of the actors and in the character development of the plot (based on the book by Philip Roth). 

            Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor) grows up in Newark, New Jersey in the 1950's.  He's a great high school athlete, and marries the local beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and they buy a little house out in the country where she happily raises cows, along with their daughter Merry (Hannah Nordberg).  Swede happily works at his father's downtown glovemaking business, where he is proud of employing local minorities to work the sewing machines.  Swede and Dawn seem like the Ken and Barbie of their community:  beautiful people with perfect lives.  But, of course, all is not as it appears.

            Swede was brought up in a Jewish family, and though at first that promises to be a difficulty (baptism or bar mitzvah?), there are much larger issues.  Merry stutters terribly, and the family disagrees about how to deal with it.  They send her to get treatment, but eventually the therapist focuses on the parents, implying that their perfection is the root cause of their daughter's condition.  What are they supposed to say to that?  (Though, in truth, I have known parents who are so extraordinarily talented, attractive, and accomplished that their children struggle to find their own identities.)

            Now it's the late 1960's, and the society is changing rapidly.  From a benign cultural landscape with a quiet simmering underneath, suddenly Newark explodes in violence, as demonstrations against both the Vietnam War and the treatment of blacks puts the police on the defensive, and the community leaders on their heels.  Merry (now played by Dakota Fanning) finds herself more than sympathetic to the demonstrators;  she so feels their pain that she wants to join them in their struggle.  She so aligns herself with their point of view that her parents have suddenly become the enemy, the symbols of all that needs overthrowing:  prosperous white business owners who perpetuate a system of economic and political oppression without realizing that they're the problem.

            Merry's parents find themselves more and more puzzled and hurt by the way their daughter seems to be turning against them, when, from their point of view, they have done nothing but love her and try to be supportive of her.  Despite their best efforts to stay connected to her, she pushes them further away, until finally she just runs away from home and takes up with a wild rebellious crowd.  We never mention Patty Hearst here, but the dynamics (and the time period) are similar:  from the father's point of view, anyway, Merry has been kidnapped and brainwashed by these outsider outlaws, and he wants his daughter back.  The thing is, he doesn't even know where she is.  And her experiences outside her safe cultural cocoon change her permanently.

            Dawn, persisting in the personal conviction that she has done nothing wrong, goes a little nutso, then decides the blame must reside in her husband.  Swede never gives up hope in finding his daughter, and also refuses to blame his wife, but despite his best efforts, his warm, loving little family has completely fallen apart.  And nothing he can do will change that.

            Ewan MacGregor's performance is kind of vanilla (like his character?), but Jennifer Connelly demonstrates some considerable emotional range, as does Dakota Fanning.  The scenario of looking back on all this from the standpoint of a 45-year high school reunion seems kind of contrived and unnecessary. The sexually-charged cameo from Valorie Curry adds spice to an otherwise bland tale of American family dysfunction.  Those of us who have lived through this time period, though, will find emotional points of contact with memories of previous cultural wars, which themselves are portents of the current imbroglio.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you felt that your children have turned into people you don't recognize?

2)                  Most of us have disappointed our fathers in some way.  How did you disappoint yours?

3)                  When has your spouse exhibited behavior that completely took you by surprise?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association