What is the definition of a “functional family?” Some would presume this to mean a family that exhibits all the attributes of a 1950’s TV show such as Father Knows Best. Others would describe their family ordeals of yelling and screaming, as well as alcohol abuse, as just part of the everyday life in their neighborhood. So a better question might be: what is a healthy family? Is it one that produces loving and fulfilled lives?
Silver Linings Playbook gives us a glimpse into a family life that is the opposite of healthy. Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) has recently been released from a mental institution and returns home to live with his parents. It doesn’t take long to figure out that his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and his father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) are anything but healthy role models for their son.
Young Pat is intent on fixing his broken relationship with his ex-wife who has no interest in getting back together with him. His parents have a relationship that lacks any kind of mutual love and support and his father makes money by illegal gambling. Pat’s view about how to win back his ex-wife is all derived from dysfunctional coaching. This is a family that is spiraling to the bottom of the drain. Unfortunately, both Mr. and Mrs. Solitano’s life choices are clearly a leading cause of their son’s unhappy life.
If a commonly defined attribute of mental illness is being delusional in the face of facts, then this is the poster child family for any group of therapists. Listening to Pat Sr. discuss his occupation of being a gambler with other people’s money all based on his own set of superstitions is very funny to us in the audience. De Niro, Weaver, and Cooper’s farcical family discussions about how life works are all worthy of Oscar nominations.
Into this mix comes Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a new love interest for Pat Jr. Her life views are in line with the Solitanos, but her ability to recognize their unhealthy behavior is clearly above the rest of them. We won’t spoil the way the story plays out, but her blunt honesty is the first step in a long road to recovery for Pat. Jr.
In today’s world where our culture defines any behavior as the “new normal,” what right then does anyone have to judge the life choices of other people or families? Our media-saturated society is now so “me” oriented that this question seems perfectly natural. Any society, though, can adopt a common set of values and attempt to live by them. People of faith, by in large, have defined those family values as ones that grow mature, discerning, loving, and fulfilled lives. That level of wisdom is most often matured when families are surrounded regularly by a community of people who are holding each other accountable for their behavior and supporting one another in their love and support.
The “normal” that the Solitanos represents is sadly lacking in all of these attributes. What may seem funny on the screen is a living Hell for many peoples’ lives. While Pat Jr. is shown as having grown in his fictional life, it is only a small step in a long process. Whether he succeeds is questionable. For the viewer, the real test of the film is in whether or not it causes us to examine our own ability to increase our capacity for growing loving and fulfilled lives for ourselves and those around us. If we succeed at that it is worthy of an Oscar in a supporting role!
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. Mental illness is complex and difficult to heal. Do you believe films like this help or hurt our ability to understand and care for those facing this form of disease?
2. The ability of love to bring health and wholeness is obvious, and yet so often we seek it in a counterfeit or incomplete form. Why do you think divine love is so often avoided if it is the basis of our hope?
3. The superstition that Pat Sr. demonstrates is common in sports. Why do you think that is true?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.