In our modern cinematic climate, sensational superheroes, antiheroes and plots to destroy the planet dominate. Quieter stories that reflect everyday life fall to the periphery, deemed too ordinary and – ironically – too “indie” to hold mainstream attentions. These stories, which often contain life’s most complex realities of love, friendship and family, often go untold.
August: Osage County, a film that explores the tangled customs, expectations and dissatisfactions inherent in every family, is one of those stories. Based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, August follows the Westons, an Oklahoman family reunited when its patriarch, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing. Together in Osage County for the first time since adolescence, the Westons must address addiction, jealousies and secrets that have always both divided – and united – their family.
The strongest feature of August is its authenticity, which is imperative to explore the intricacies of family. Letts’ natural dialogue and ordinary situations work together to cleverly create uncomfortably familiar scenarios that, despite their lack of blockbuster sensationalism, enrapt viewers simply because they, too, have gone through similar situations. The most engaging scenes in August are those that, on the surface, are the most ordinary: a family dinner, a living room dance or a song by the piano.
In perfect complement to the ordinary, the performances in August inject the spectacular, together wielding some of the strongest on screen this season. At the helm of both the cast and the Weston family is Meryl Streep as Violet, a decaying mother addicted to pills, control and contempt. After decades of excellence, Streep continues to captivate on-screen. As Violet, Streep surpasses method-acting camouflage, avoiding repetition and ostentation that could caricature such a vivacious role. Instead, Streep’s tireless devotion to her role yields a complex performance as she varies and revolutionizes Violet to show a true trajectory.
Julia Roberts shows surprising range as Violet’s “favorite” daughter, Barbara, in not only addressing an ailing mother, but also in dealing with the guilt of leaving her family behind in Osage County years ago. Benedict Cumberbatch, often typecasted as intelligentsia, shines as the ignorant Little Charles Aiken, a Weston cousin infantilized by his bully mother, played fabulously by Margo Martindale.
Despite the theatrical tact inherent in the August cast, director John Wells deserves significant credit for balancing the truthfulness and spectacular talent needed to make August a film about ordinary family, but entertainment nonetheless. Without proper direction, the complexities and performances of August could have become overbearing, especially with the number of storylines and characters that intersect in Osage County. Wells and Letts, the latter of whom penned the screenplay, together balance harrowing drama with moments of lighter humor, ensuring that audiences receive some reprieve alongside camaraderie shared over family traumas. Similarly, Wells cleverly bookends dramatic episodes with cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s beautiful shots of Oklahoma, which not only provides a further momentary release from the Weston drama for audiences, but also suggests that perhaps some of their distress derives from the isolated monotony of the land itself.
Granted, the lagging pace and simplicity needed to achieve the authenticity of August: Osage County could tire the impatient few, but for those who consume cinema for reflections, comments and resolutions on the complexity of ordinary life, August: Osage County is a resonant and refreshing film and, hopefully, an indication of more great films to come.