American Beauty is one of the most well-received movies of our time. As the screen debut of screenwriter Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes, the movie has won numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was a good demonstration of different psychological and social themes such as deviancy, romantic and paternal love, sexuality, and beauty.
The movie’s focus is Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). In fact, as the narrator, Lester is the revolving point of most of the movie. American Beauty paints how he was a year before he died and how he’s changed through the year that eventually led to his death.
But the movie also focused on other interesting characters – most notable of which are his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), daughter Jane (Thora Birch), Janes’ friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), and the neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Almost all of these characters undergo a specific ‘deviant’ nature and are almost on either poles of the social sphere.
Watching Lester, Carolyn, Jane, Angela, and Ricky, one realizes that people really do change behavior based on previous experiences. Although Berk (2004), in her book Development Through the Life Span, talked mainly about the change of relationship between parent and child through operant conditioning, this discussion is useful in explaining the hostile relationship between Jane and her parents.
As Jane has come to learn from previous experiences, any attempt at trying to bond the family falls into deaf ears; hence, she’s taken to keeping her mouth shut and maintaining a distant stance from her father and mother.
Perhaps, this type of learning can also aid in understanding Angela. She is naturally insecure and afraid of being thought ‘ordinary’. But she’s learned that putting up a front and projecting a brazen image elicits a positive response from men; since this eliminates her fears of being just a common person, she has maintained the said image.
Lester and Carolyn also demonstrate how adults react differently when on the brink of transitioning from their prime to old age. Lester copes with his shift to old age in a different manner than Carolyn in the sense that he’s preferred to be “sedated”, to use his own terms.
He felt that everything in his life was going downhill: he was losing his job, he hasn’t had sex with his wife in a long time, and he just doesn’t find any aspects of his life exciting. Yet given the right stimuli (in the person of Angela, whom he is obviously attracted to), he realizes that aging should not be the end of his life.
He starts working out and bettering himself. He shows – through his decision to quit his job, resume his teenage job as a fast food employee, and buy his dream car – that sometimes, people regress while moving towards old age.
Carolyn, however, has an opposite reaction. Knowing that she now only has limited time, she goes down the serious route. She became more focused on her career and had little time left for personal pleasure.
Jane and Angela on the other hand, show teenagers metamorphosing into adults. Jane, realizing that most teenagers her age are already forming well-developed breasts, reacts to her maturation by desiring breast augmentation.
Angela, though, who projects a confident stance, does not do – or wish to do – anything as drastic. In fact, it seems that she is unmindful of the possible biological changes that adulthood might bring to her current ‘good looks’.
Lester’s obsession with Angela has given him an energy boost. Suddenly, he finds the guts to stand up to his wife and demand for what he wants. Then he gets involved in a fitness regimen and dives into the use of marijuana (which he purchases from Ricky).
This has eventually led to drastic changes in his family life: Carolyn and he find themselves quarreling in front of Jane, who naturally forms greater hatred for her parents.
Early in the film and towards the middle part, we get a glimpse at how Ricky feels about death. He thinks that death is nothing to worry about and is something interesting to watch. This was apparent in the scene where he was filming a dead bird and describes it as “beautiful”.
And the death of Lester reinforces this: examining Lester’s bloody body, Ricky utters, “Wow.” Lester also portrays a way of coping with death. Through his narration, he describes death as a sort of freedom and a culmination of everything that is happy.
Using Lester as a narrator, Ball speaks of how “the after life” does exist and how it is something that we all have to go through at one point in our lives.
American Beauty is not just another pretty, award-winning movie. It is an effective demonstration of how people react differently towards changes in life, specifically adulthood and life transitions.
Mendes, Sam. (Director). (1999, October 1). American Beauty [Motion picture]. USA: DreamWorks.
Berk, Laura E. (2004). Development Through the Life Span. Boston,
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