Barbara (Julia Roberts) is in a car headed towards a lake. She is going there to identify the body of her father, who drowned himself. “It’s a good thing we can’t predict the future. We’d never get out of bed,” she says. The response to that statement seems implicit: it’s not so hard to predict the future. You’re unhappy now, so you’re probably going to be unhappy later. You might try to change, but you’re never going to be someone other than yourself.
Later, the house matriarch, Violet (Meryl Streep), is at the head of the table for the post-funeral dinner. She’s screaming at her three daughters, and everyone else. They don’t know pain, she says. Their dead father spent years four through 10 living in a car. “Six years,” she says. His daughters, on the other hand, had their college educations handed to them, and what did they become? “What are you? And you?” she questions. Their father rose from absolute poverty to become an awarded poet. “You all should’ve been president by now,” she says. You all just invent your own pain, she says.
Barbara is a lot like her mother; the parallels are so staggering that their intentionality is jarring, a fault to the otherwise good — albeit almost embarrassingly personal — writing throughout August: Osage County. And still, Violet doesn’t understand that Barbara’s pain is the same as her’s. It is inherent to her being, and if she had lived in a car for six years as a child or been beaten by her parents, it would’ve made no difference, except for that her pain would’ve seemed more validated to everyone else. If she had to invent it or not, she was going to be in pain, and she was going to be unhappy.
For that matter, I’d say that’s the case for all of the characters — the family members — in August: Osage County. None of them are happy. They’re all different sorts of messes, knowingly so. They spend a lot of their time looking for things to blame their unhappiness on: their own addictions or someone else’s, who they’re in love with or who is out of love with them, their kid’s behavior, petty mistakes, someone’s death — whatever. And maybe Violet is kind of right; they’re not inventing the pain, so much as they’re inventing things that they can blame it all on just to avoid responsibility and the need to change anything.
Like a lot of movies about families, this film is ugly, and the people that are in it are ugly. I haven’t met very many people who think of themselves as anything more than ugly. That is why this movie is ugly. I liked it because I saw myself in it, and because it isn’t an exaggeration, or overly generous: it is seeking neither sympathy nor forgiveness. This set of problems might not exactly apply to you, but you are one or two of these characters, and you know one or two of the others, probably by blood. And I’d bet you’re stuck with them, and I know you’re stuck with yourself. Sooner or later, you’re going to figure out that living through this has nothing to do with fixing anyone and everything to do with accepting everyone.