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Film / Shy People

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Shy People is a 1987 American drama film by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky, starring Jill Clayburgh, Barbara Hershey, Martha Plimpton, Mare Winningham, Don Swayze, John Philbin, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Merritt Butrick.

Diana Sullivan (Clayburgh) is a successful Manhattan writer and photojournalist, seemingly oblivious to the serious cocaine addiction that her wild child daughter, Grace (Plimpton), has developed. A commission by Cosmopolitan magazine to write an article about a lost branch of Diana's family leads them deep into the bayous of Louisiana, where they encounter Diana's distant cousin, Ruth (Hershey). Married at 12 to an abusive man whose current whereabouts are an increasingly troubling cipher, Ruth rules over her three adult sons, all less than perfectly cogent, with equal parts protectiveness and ferocity, while a fourth, disowned son adds to the volatility of the situation. As the fascinated Diana and wary Ruth circle one another, Grace, bored and in grip of her addiction, toys with her naïve cousins with devastating consequences.

This film provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Artistic License Space: The image of the moon (actually an Apollo 11 photograph) as seen from Diana's plane in the final scene is incorrect as it shows part of the far side which is not visible from Earth.
  • As the Good Book Says...: The film closes with this quote from Revelations III, xv, xvi:
    I know thy works, and thou art neither cold nor hot:
    I would thou wert cold or hot.
    So then because thee art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,
    I will spew thee out of my mouth.
  • Attempted Rape: Mark attempts to force himself on Grace while high on cocaine when she goes inside to retrieve some honey for Tommy. She manages to fight back, though, and flees into the swamp.
  • Beauty Inversion: In contrast to Konchalovsky's previous film Runaway Train where Rebecca De Mornay looked Hollywood Homely at worst, here the filmmakers do a fairly adequate job of making the beautiful Barbara Hershey look dowdy.
  • Big Applesauce: Diana is a successful New York journalist living in an upscale apartment who initially thinks of her genealogical assignment as simply being business as usual.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Let's see... The matriarch was married to an older abusive man at the age of 12, the one son suffers from mental health issues and lives in a cage, the daughter-in-law is pregnant while still in her teenage years, another son is disowned by the mother and constantly at odds with her, and everyone lives isolated from civilization and believes that they're being haunted by the ghost of the deceased family patriarch.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Diana decides not to go ahead with her genealogical assignment, and Grace is forced to come to the realization that she is not yet ready for the adult world. At the same time, however, Ruth finally takes the opportunity to reach out to and reconcile with her disowned son Mike.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Grace is a relapsed drug addict who is constantly defying her mother's wishes.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor, poor Grace. The ordeal she endures is enough to convince her never to leave her mother's care.
  • Deep South: Much of the story takes place in a remote part of the Louisiana bayous, where Ruth and her clan live in virtual isolation from the outside world.
  • Domestic Abuse: According to Mike, Joe would regularly hold Ruth upside down whenever he got drunk and angry. Ruth later confirms that he did indeed do that and even worse things, and that she hated with a passion for it. Despite this, she remained with him anyway because he offered her protection and provided her with their children.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The events of the film take place over the course of three days.
  • I Have No Son!: While going through Ruth's family photos, Diana notices a child with his face scratched out. Ruth insists that the child in question sinned by going into town, and that said child is therefore dead to her.
  • Kissing Cousins: Grace sneaks her way into Tommy's cage, and it's heavily implied they had sex.
  • The Mentally Disturbed: Tommy clearly suffers from some sort of mental health issue, and Ruth has him locked up in a cage so he can't disturb the others, only letting him out at certain times in the day.
  • Misplaced-Names Poster: Barbara Hershey's name is placed above Jill Clayburgh's likeness, and vice versa, in the poster.
  • Old Man Marrying a Child: Ruth was twelve when she married Joe as his second wife.
  • Ominous Fog: Present when Jake assaults Mark, and later when Diana searches for her missing daughter.
  • One-Woman Wail: Present in the score during the final scene.
  • Police Are Useless: Ruth intends to press assault charges against family rival Jake Wilson, whom Mark claims attacked him, but the local police dismiss the case for lack of evidence.
  • Rebellious Spirit: Grace. Her constant defiance of her elders and drug problems inflame existing tensions within Ruth's clan and nearly tear the family apart. In the end, she reluctantly comes to the realization that she is not yet ready for the adult world.
  • Scenery Porn: The cinematography includes some really nice shots of the Louisiana marshlands, starting with an aerial view of the swamp.
  • Southern Gothic: While nothing supernatural happens, expect maybe in the heads of Ruth and her clan, there's still an overall heavy and oppressive atmosphere to the setting.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Ruth's daughter-in-law Candy is pregnant at the time of Diana's fateful visit. Ruth herself was likely not much younger when she gave birth to her children.
  • The Un-Favorite: Mike chose to leave the family circle and open up a nightclub in a nearby town. For doing so, his mother disowns him.