End-of-life movie review: Marvin's Room

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on May 25, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Marvin’s Room, a 1996 movie directed by Jerry Zaks, is a beautiful story of the best and worst aspects of family and how tragedy provides an opportunity for healing. I highly recommend this movie for its poignant message of pain and hope, but suggest that you keep a box of Kleenex handy because it is very moving and emotionally evocative.

The story centers around two sisters, Lee and Bessie, who have not spoken to one another for 20 years and have led very different lives. Lee, played by Meryl Streep, is a cosmetologist living in Ohio who is raising her two sons alone after leaving their abusive father. Lee’s oldest son Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a troubled 17-year-old who has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital after burning down their house.

Bessie, played by Diane Keaton, is a single woman who has been a caregiver for her ill father Marvin and nearly-senile Aunt Ruth, in Florida for the past 17 years. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia she contacts Lee to ask if she and her children are willing to be tested as possible bone marrow donors.

This sets up a reunion between Bessie and her estranged sister, who travels to Florida with sons Hank and Charlie to undergo the necessary testing. The contrasts between the two sisters are great – as Lee is shown to be an angry controlling mother who constantly conflicts with rebellious Hank and fails to show him love. Meanwhile, Bessie is a gentle, ever-patient caregiver who lovingly tends to the needs of Marvin and Ruth, selflessly giving up her time and sleep for them.

There is awkwardness between the two sisters as they attempt to understand one another and their very different lives. Bessie reaches out to Hank and finds he eventually responds to her caring and concerned nature, though Lee warns her not to waste her time. Both Hank and Charlie benefit from being in the presence of Bessie’s gentle love and Hank announces to his mother that he wants to stay in Florida with Bessie.

Meanwhile Bessie and Lee confront the reality that Bessie may no longer be able to care for Marvin and Ruth if there is no donor match for a bone marrow transplant. Lee wants to find a nursing home for her father and aunt while Bessie insists that Lee should move to Florida and take over their care. An argument ensues during which Lee defends her choice to live her own life and refuse to help care for her relatives. She reveals her pain and anger that Bessie never reached out to her and her children over the past 20 years.

In a breakthrough moment, Bessie apologizes for fighting and Lee offers to fix Bessie’s wig for her. As the two women talk they begin to experience renewed love and respect for one another. When Bessie learns that there is no match for a donor, Lee steps up and begins to help with the care of Marvin and Ruth.

Marvin’s Room is a lovely portrayal of the power of suffering and love to transform lives and families. Hank’s life is saved as Lee’s anger is transformed and Bessie’s loneliness and fear of dying are met with love. While it is painful to observe in this movie the brokenness and dysfunction that are common to so many families these days, the ultimate healing of all their past resentments and wounds is cathartic and inspiring – pointing the way toward changes that could benefit real families in our society today.

Categories: Movie Review, End-of-Life, Death & Dying

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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