Reviewed by: Cheryl Sneeringer
In a media culture that typically encourages people to do their own thing and “look out for number one,” “Marvin’s Room” shines like a bright star in a black sky. It tells the story of a compassionate, middle-aged spinster named Bessie (Diane Keaton) who has taken care of her bedridden, incoherent father and her loopy aunt for the last twenty years. Bessie is the one who changes the sheets when father “has a little accident.” She spoon-feeds him soft foods and provides his hourly array of medications. She is the one who runs to his side in the middle of the night when he thrashes about, fearful and disoriented. The fragile, elderly aunt is no help; she is the sort of woman whose life is oriented around the latest developments on her soap operas.
When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she needs to find a bone marrow donor. She contacts her sister Lee (Meryl Streep), whom she has not seen in almost twenty years. Lee had turned her back on the family twenty years before, after their father’s first stroke, deciding that she would look out for herself rather than participate in any way in the care of her father. Now, after twenty years of self-centered choices, Lee is a brash, hardened, self-indulgent single mother who seems to have no warmth or affection for anyone. She has two sons—one a withdrawn bookworm, the other an alienated, rebellious teen who expresses his contempt for his mother by burning their house down.
Lee and her sons make the long drive back to the family home to be tested to see if any one of them is a genetic match for donating bone marrow to Bessie. At first, their reunion is awkward and uncomfortable. But as they begin to touch one another’s lives, each broken family member finds support, affirmation, and affection from within the family. Most touching is the gradual breaking down of barriers in Lee, and finally her realization that to love and to give of oneself unselfishly is, in itself, fulfilling.
At one point Bessie and Lee are discussing Bessie’s self-sacrificial life, and Bessie exclaims, “I’ve been so lucky—I’ve had so much love!” Lee at first misunderstands, thinking that Bessie means that her father and aunt have loved her. But Bessie corrects her: “No, I mean I’ve loved them.” What a wise message—it is in loving others that one finds great joy, not in being loved.
I highly recommend this film. It kindles within you the desire to go home and hug your sisters, brothers, mother, and father. “Marvin’s Room” is rated PG-13, and because of its serious subject matter is not suitable for children or young teens. I counted three profanities, plus a soap opera scene about sex that, though a caricature, was inappropriate for youth. If you take (or allow) your older teens to see this movie, make an effort either right after the movie or the next day to discuss with them God’s view of the family, and what family ties ought to mean to each of us. If you see it, do stay seated through the trailing credits and listen to the lovely, touching ballad sung by Carly Simon at the end.
Year of Release—1997