Movie Review: August: Osage County

Movie: August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actress (Julia Roberts) (2 nominations total)

August: Osage County (and that's pronounced "O-sāj," second syllable like the herb) is based on the play by Tracy Letts, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The synopsis of the plot is that a man dies and his children and widow come together in the family home in rural Oklahoma and confront some of the family demons.

This movie was filmed at least in part in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I have never been to Pawhuska, but I've been to the area. There is nothing around there. The closest town that might be easily accessible is Vinita, which is right off I-40. It boasts two ATMs, only one of which was working on my last trip through. The turnpike gate for Vinita only accepts cash. There is a Braums which has a surprising variety of gluten free options in its mini grocery, but I purchased neither food nor ice cream from that establishment.

Pawhuska's most recent census puts the population at around 3600 people, last the internet knew. It is the capital of the Osage Nation, according to Wikipedia. I have no doubt this is true, but have not accessed the Osage Nation's website to verify this.

Mr. Letts is originally from Tulsa and grew up in Durant, so these facts are well familiar to him, in the abstract historical sense if not in my concrete knowledge of 3 weeks ago. The movie is a testament to this fact, as the crew, casting people, and voice coaches all contributed to making sure it got the stifling emptiness of this area absolutely right.

I am not unbiased in watching this movie. It was really good, and the performances were spot on, and yet I kept getting caught up by little things. Barbara (Julia Roberts), the oldest daughter refers to the plains as a "spiritual affliction, like the blues." Do I ever understand that; I love my home state and yet when I go back, I feel like I can't breathe, like there is so much emptiness that it will swallow me, all unwilling, wiping me and all of my efforts and talents off the face of the world, and I will never make it out again. I resent that. And yet... and yet. It's beautiful, in its way. It shines golden, and I know that there are good things there. I miss it, even as I know I can't ever live there again. I hear the voice of another bitter, sad Oklahoma expatriate in the words of Tracy Letts, and I feel its echo painfully in my own heart.

Maudlin thoughts of birthplaces aside. the movie holds a lot of pain, and a lot of love held at arms length, wielded like a knife. Addiction and the petty ugliness of its associated minor mental illnesses is pretty barefaced in this movie, as well as the pain of being the loved one of a person struggling with these problems. I was reminded of so many people I knew growing up as I watched this; so many people who fought with so much pain and self-inflicted and external suckage, all with those accents, with those words, with those phrases. Johnna (played by Misty Updike) provided all the oxygen in this film for me; the scenes she was in let me breathe again, and I was grateful for her (an amazing performance, btw, the moreso for being so quiet). This is a female driven film, and it is a masterpiece of ensemble work and deserves, I think, more attention than it's gotten.

It's a hard movie to watch. It will likely be less so for someone who isn't me, but possibly moreso for those who personally suffered from the demons trapped within the movie's fictional Pawhuska walls. It was funny in places, when it meant to be, and I highly recommend that you see it. But at the same time, I can't say I'll see it again. Thinking about it feels like something pressing on my chest, and that's not particularly pleasant. Meryl Streep was really, really good, as was Julia Roberts, and I'm glad they were both in it. I don't know that I'd choose them for their respective categories, though. Should either of them get the award, however, I would not feel that things had gone amiss.


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