This is the story of a family struggling to deal with the accidental death of a teenage son. Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and their surviving teenage son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) live in a wealthy Chicago suburb. Some months before the time of the film, Conrad's older brother Buck drowned when the small boat he and Conrad were sailing capsized in a windstorm.

In the present we see Beth as cold, withdrawn from Conrad (Buck had been her favorite) and at times actively hostile to him and to her husband, too. Conrad, recently back home from three months in the hospital (including electro-convulsive shock therapy) after slitting his wrists, is between uneasy and agonized in his high-school and family world. Calvin remains emotionally open but is befuddled and often caught between his wife and his son, talking about things that don't matter.

Within that setting, the film tells the story of Conrad's attempts to deal with the guilt he feels after his brother's death. A series of psychotherapy sessions with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) plays a crucial role. Seeing Dr. Berger also helps Cal understand some things, and when in a midnight confrontation he tells Beth of his sorrow that she has substantially changed for the worse, she proudly packs her bags and leaves. The film ends early the next morning, with Conrad and his father in an emotional embrace on the front steps of their home.


How does a family deal with the death of a child? In this family the answer is, each family member in his or her own way, and largely in isolation from the others, which isn't good, especially when a mother is actively blaming a child and refusing to talk about it. The father is open to his son and to his wife, too, but until his therapy sessions he is ineffectual--for instance, asking Conrad, "Are you OK?" and gratefully accepting the easy "sure."

Dr. Berger in his sessions with Conrad is a tough-but-nice eclectic who challenges Conrad, makes him finish his sentences, does some work with free association, and, after several sessions, deliberately makes Conrad angry in order to open up the channels of feeling. Conrad comes to trust Dr. Berger and his own feelings, even the painful ones, and to see that he has unconsciously internalized his mother's blame for his brother's death. (Timothy Hutton conveys the process movingly and credibly.)

Conrad keeps moving toward his family, even his mother, and eventually wins a connection with his father. The film thus rewards openness and persistence, but in doing so seems rather harsh on the mother and her problems (she refuses to see Dr. Berger). A challenge, going beyond the film, to family theorists: How to help Conrad without driving out his mother?


Based on the novel by Judith Guest. Winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton).

Primary Source

Paramount Home Video