The story line is as follows: a recently widowed father (played by Robert DeNiro) decides to visit his grown children after they all renege on an invitation to a family gathering. As he travels cross-country, the dad (Frank Goode) finds that all is not as he's imagined. The story has has hung on to - working hard at a job which has affected his lungs and threatens his health in order to allow his children to pursue their dreams and achieve happiness - starts to disintegrate. Even his image of himself, an impartial, sacrificing encourager and cheerleader of his children needs to be revised.
But Frank is not the only one at fault for being out of touch with the true state of his family. As the story unfolds, we realize the adult children have been complicit in fabricating a false reality. Just as his wife had kept from him anything unpleasant, or disappointing, his children continue to edit the script they use in a desire to make their dad feel good. They don't want to disappoint, to fall short, so they built barriers with half truths. And yet, despite the lies and hurt, the pressures and misunderstandings, each child truly loves their dad, and cares for their siblings. The dysfunction has not taken away their core desire to love and be loved.
The movie underscores the difficulty of being truthful. "People want life to be easy," says the truck driver who gives DeNiro a lift. Her comments echo those of his daughter Amy, the advertising executive. We've just seen her promote an advertisement for a loan consolidation company pitching the ease of their product. The only problem is the client knows what he's promising is false. "It doesn't matter," Amy says, "they're only paying us to market the product. It's that or nothing." If the truth won't sell, don't use it.
Everybody is not fine in this movie, if you define "fine-ness" as a happy life without disappointment or heartache (messy-free). But stating the truth and committing to community gives strength to move on, to find joy in the midst of renegotiating one's life. As the dad's name hints at - a good life is not possible without frankness.
I've been accused of seeing things too brightly, of thinking there was more health than was actually the case. In part this is because I, like Frank, have difficulty in dealing with the pain that comes from recognizing and speaking the truth. But in the past years, the invitation has been to "fear not," to allow myself to be stretched to the limit, to plumb the dark and scary depths of emotions. Though experiencing pain or grief or sadness can be uncharted territory (ironically in the movie, DeNiro has to have a heart attack for his family to assemble), it need not debilitate.
A friend of mine who offers spiritual direction, continues to draw me back to the importance of truth telling. "Notice and name," she will say. "Only then can one have the power to make changes." Is everybody fine? Yes, and no, and hopefully yes, if we don't shrink from the truth but choose to look it in the eye, name it for what it is, and allow it to touch us. If we do this, drawing out strength from authentic community, we will not drown. We may have momentary experiences of panic, and difficult decisions to face, but even in the midst of it, we will be fine.