The eponymous Ordinary People are the Jarrett family of Lake Forest, Illinois: father Calvin (Sutherland), mother Beth (Moore), and their younger son Conrad (Hutton). Prior to the events of the story the elder son, Buck, was taken out of the picture in a sailing accident, and Conrad, who was with Buck when he died, was committed to a psychiatric hospital for four months after he attempted suicide out of grief.
Now he's been released, and we see the ways in which Buck's death has affected the family. It's not pretty in the least bit. Also in the picture is Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), a psychiatrist who works to coax Conrad out of the emotional shell he's constructed while Calvin and Beth deal with their own issues.
The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (famously beating out Raging Bull), Director (Redford), Adapted Screenplay (Alvin Sargent), and Supporting Actor (Hutton). Moore and Hirsch were also nominated for their performances.
This work features examples of:
- Always Someone Better: Buck is presented as exactly this to Conrad, as a more talented and more loved brother.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Dr. Berger gets a few of these: "Maybe you were stronger. Did it ever occur to you that you might have been stronger?" Then, after a beat to let Conrad have it sink in: "How long are you going to punish yourself? When are you going to quit?"
- Bittersweet Ending: Beth leaves her family, not knowing if she'll ever be capable of love again. However, Calvin and Conrad finally connect with each other.
- Broken Ace: Buck was The Ace in life, but it didn't save him from the sailing accident.
- Broken Bird: Beth.
- Calling the Old Woman Out: Conrad, during a heated argument in front of Calvin, calls out Beth for never once visiting him in the hospital. When he says that Beth would have visited Buck if he was in the hospital, Beth coldly responds "Buck never would have been in the hospital!" Calvin later dwells over this argument, and starts to realize how much Beth may be hurting their son.
- Catapult Nightmare: Conrad has one of these at the start of the film.
- The Chessmaster: Beth's interpretation of Conrad's depressive behavior; she insists it's all an elaborate attempt to manipulate Calvin, probably because it's the only reason she can conceive of for why someone would act that way.
- Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: More like "Lighting-Coded for Your Convenience". The Jarretts' house and all the other locations in the film are generally brightly lit and well-kept ... except for Dr. Berger's office, which by his own admission is untidy, and is always filmed in a somewhat noirish fashion. The fact that it's the one place in the film where Conrad can and must confront his demons is, of course, a complete coincidence.
- Conveniently an Orphan: Averted with Calvin (more so in the novel than the film, though it's mentioned in both). He grew up in an orphanage in Detroit and, while he admits to Dr. Berger that he sometimes still feels rootless, he has a family and successful tax law practice and is not about to go anywhere.
- Crappy Holidays: Some of the drama takes place against the backdrop of the Christmas season.
- Dead Sparks: Calvin and Beth.
- Driven to Suicide: Conrad tried to kill himself six months before the story opens. Karen, a friend Conrad made during his stay in the hospital, eventually succeeds in doing so.
- Doting Parent: Beth accuses Calvin of being positively fixated on Conrad. While Calvin does desperately want to make him happy, this only strikes Beth as unhealthy because she can't see Conrad as anything other than The Unfavorite.
- Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: While not evil, Beth believes Conrad is just manipulating his father because she herself cannot love anyone, so she cannot see his grief over his brother's death and being The Unfavorite as anything but a manipulation tactic.
- Evil Matriarch: Deconstructed; Beth tries to put on this facade in the wake of Buck's death, but that soon crumbles.
- Fatal Flaw: Buck was The Ace and The Favorite in life, but never took anything seriously. His dad would often have to get on his case about chores and school because he always took things in stride. The film makes it clear that the reason he didn't survive the boating accident was he treated it like a big joke until he was swept away by the surge of the waves.
- The Film of the Book: And an extremely faithful adaptation, too, largely because Redford requested Judith Guest's input on the film.
- Flashback: In the novel, Conrad recalls the accident that killed Buck in greater and greater detail as the story proceeds, culminating in him realizing he doesn't have to feel guilty about being the one who survived. The film also has a couple of flashbacks with Buck.
- Freudian Trio: The Jarretts fall squarely into this trope:
- The Ghost: In the novel, Conrad often recalls Dr. Crawford at the hospital who, like Berger, was helpful to him. But Crawford is never actually present diegetically.
- Honor Thy Abuser: Book-only example. The film ends with an extremely open ending that leaves it very ambiguous what happens with Beth and Conrad's relationship in the future and even if they'll continue to have one. The book reveals that they do, because Conrad ultimately came to the conclusion that Beth did the best she could and that he "needs" to forgive her.
- Ice Queen: Beth freezes up when Conrad gives her a warm hug, hinting to Calvin that she's not the warm, loving person he thought she was.
- Informed Judaism: Berger is likely the only character in the story who isn't a WASP. We know for certain he's Jewish by Beth's mother's tartly asking as much when the Jarretts mention his name at Christmas.
- Jerk Jocks: Conrad's swim team friends. No wonder he decides to quit. Again.
- Lack of Empathy: Beth can't see that any of Conrad's pain is genuine, only he that he's trying to manipulate his parents somehow.
- Loving a Shadow: Calvin eventually realizes Beth was never the giving, loving person he thought she was, and is devastated to realize he doesn't really know her or love her anymore.
- Meaningful Names: Calvin and Conrad. The former suggests John Calvin, the Protestant theologian, and the character's work ethic; the latter, author Joseph Conrad and the conflicted characters in his works (in the book, one of the essay questions on Conrad's English final concerns Lord Jim).
- Moral Guardians: The book's themes and a short, rather tasteful actually, sex scene between Conrad and his girlfriend Jeannine have sometimes led to it being pulled off school library shelves.
- Oscar Bait: Albeit successful, as well as a long Tear Jerker.
- Parental Favoritism: Buck was always number one in everyone's eyes, especially Beth. This makes her post-Buck relationship with Conrad quite difficult.
- Parental Substitute: Arnold Bacon, in the novel, to Calvin.
- Plot-Triggering Death: Buck.
- Point of View: The novel's chapters alternate between the perspectives of Conrad and Calvin.
- Posthumous Character: Buck, as recalled frequently in the novel by his father and brother, and shown in brief flashbacks in the film. In the novel, Calvin also frequently recalls his relationship with Arnold Bacon, an older mentor who guided him from an orphanage to law school, until they had a falling out over him marrying Beth. He never reconciled before the older man died.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Toward the end of the film, Beth encounters Calvin shedding some Manly Tears. After taking a moment to regain his composure, he confronts her:Beth: Calvin? Why are you crying? Can I, uh... can I get you something?
Calvin: I don't...
Beth: What did you say? Calvin, what did you say? Tell me!
Calvin: You are beautiful. And you are unpredictable. But you're so cautious. You're determined, Beth; but you know something? You're not strong. And I don't know if you're really giving. Tell me something: Do you love me? Do you really love me?
Beth: I feel the way I've always felt about you.note
Calvin: (after a pause) We would have been alright, if there hadn't been any mess. But you can't handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. I don't know, maybe you can't love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was as if you buried all your love with him, and I don't understand that, I just don't know, I don't... maybe it wasn't even Buck; maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried. But, whatever it was... I don't know who you are. And I don't know what we've been playing at. So I was crying. Because I don't know if I love you anymore. And I don't know what I'm going to do without that.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: Coach Salan is very sympathetic to Conrad's situation and tries to accommodate him, such as holding private practice sessions to make up for time missed through doctor's appointments. That said, he doesn't take Conrad's decision to quit the swim team well.
- Shout-Out: We learn that Conrad is reading Jude the Obscure in English class, and Karen's drama club is performing A Thousand Clowns.
- When we first see Calvin and Beth in the film, they're attending a production of Same Time, Next Year.
- In the novel, Calvin mentions that he's reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at a few different points.
- The Shrink: Dr. Berger, who serves as The Awesome Shrink. He ping-pongs Conrad's rage when he needs it and comforts him in all other times. Judd Hirsch's portrayal of him in the film is often recalled by Psychology Today as one of the most positive depictions of a psychiatrist in American cinema.
- Skewed Priorities: Talking with Dr. Berger helps Calvin remember a detail from Buck's funeral that he hid in the back of his mind till now. He'd been so distraught he could barely function, and when he started to dress for the funeral Beth coldly told him not to wear that shirt, to wear the blue shirt.Calvin: I was a complete mess. My son was dead. What did it matter what shirt I wore?
- The Sociopath: Beth seems to be a high-functioning, realistic version. She's not sadistic or cruel, but under her superficial charm (shallow affect) and socialite exterior (pathological need for stimulation in the form of socialite parties, dinners, and events) she is incapable of loving or truly empathizing with anyone. It's implied she learned to fake superficial emotions like love and attachment from an early age (since WASP culture is pretty shallow to begin with), but is a cold Control Freak underneath. What little love she felt for anyone she invested in Buck (whom it's implied she only loved because he was The Ace and she saw him as an extension of herself), and when he died, she basically stopped pretending.
- Suburbia: The wealthy suburb of Lake Forest (and the Jarretts' unhappiness within it) is contrasted with the peace Calvin and Conrad find in Evanston (technically a cityand referred to as such in the novelbut still a suburb of Chicago). Calvin and Conrad move to Evanston at the end of the novel.
- Survivor Guilt: Conrad has lots and lots of this.
- Title Drop: In the novel:They are ordinary people, after all. For a time they had entered the world of the newspaper statistic; a world where any measure you took to feel better was temporary, at best, but that is over. This is permanent. It must be.
- Trickster Mentor: Berger can be like this at times.
- The Unfavorite: Even when he was alive, Beth gave all her love to Buck and had none left for Conrad.
- Villainous Breakdown: OK, Beth's attitude isn't due to malice, but her coldness towards Conrad is pretty unfair. When Calvin finally calls her out on this, telling her that Conrad thinks his mother hates him, Beth's composure breaks and she responds by not only shouting at Calvin, but also verbally attacking her brother who calmly tries to reassure her.
- What You Are in the Dark: As Calvin realizes in his conversation with Beth, more or less Beth was a relatively decent mother and wife. But when faced with the horrendous tragedy of losing a son, she revealed how much she is too uncomfortable with actually dealing with the trauma and is unwilling to be supportive to her son or husband, or even admit that she needs help as well.