‘August: Osage County’ review: A surprisingly compelling family drama

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January 25, 2014 by Hope W.

Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

August: Osage County is riveting.

It’s not often that I describe dramas in this manner, especially those dealing with dysfunctional family dynamics. “Hard-hitting”, “poignant”, “moving”, even “ponderous” perhaps; but “riveting”? Possibly never. (Mostly because these sort of dramas don’t really appeal to me, unless actors I absolutely love are in it.)

But August: Osage County quietly holds your attention until you realise that you are not just perfunctorily sitting through it, as you would sit through a family gathering that you have to be at — you really are invested in what happens to this family. Because they all have secrets, as it is slowly (and unexpectedly) revealed; and like all good secrets do, they make the people you are talking about suddenly ten times more interesting to you. As a result, their interactions become more compelling.

Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson in August: Osage County

Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson in August: Osage County

The film is adapted from the Pulitzer prize-winning play of the same name. Set in the midst of a hot summer in the American Midwest, an extended family, headed by a cantankerous, sick, drug-addicted matriarch (Meryl Streep), gathers for a funeral after the father (Sam Shepard) is drowned. During their time together, strained family relationships are tested and earthshaking revelations come to light.

Three scenes stood out to me: the very long dinner scene where tensions come to a boil and Meryl Streep’s vicious hag lets it rip on everyone; one where the three sisters “bond”, and later listen to a story told by their mother; and then a fairly comical and expletive-laden scene near the end where Barb (Julia Roberts), the eldest daughter, tries all provocative means to get her mother and sister, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), to eat their lunch, in order to draw attention from Ivy and prevent her from confessing a relationship she didn’t know was forbidden — only to turn into tragedy as Ivy finds out the awful truth in a way neither sister expects. It is a dialogue- and character-heavy drama, but their family secrets are so soap-operatic in nature that you cannot help but be absorbed by it.

The cast of August: Osage County

The pivotal dinner scene in August: Osage County

Everyone — from Juliette Lewis’ ditzy sister to Misty Upham’s nurse and outside-onlooker — chips in to the dysfunction of this ensemble piece with stellar performances, though their roles may be small (hello, Benedict Cumberbatch!). Meryl Streep collects her 18th Oscar nomination for her role as the matriarch, and it’s easy to see why, since it is a very hystrionical role that encourages actors to go all out (something voters of acting awards love to acknowledge). Also, she is Meryl Streep: it seems the Academy can’t *not* give her an Oscar nomination at this point whenever she does a movie that looks vaguely prestigious. Julia Roberts deserves her nom for Best Supporting Actress as the put-upon eldest daughter who has to deal with her mother’s drama, despite her own troubles with her husband (Ewan McGregor) whom she is separated from, and her sullen teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). But in a category which Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) are dominating this year, her nomination is her reward.

Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in August: Osage County

Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep as the mother-daughter duo at odds in August: Osage County

Due to the nature of the film depending on the element of surprise, and the fact that it is a drama and not an action-packed thriller, it is also one that you can only watch once to feel its freshness and full impact. But it will be one time well spent.

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