It pains me that people dismiss the film as ‘sick’ because they hear about the relationship between Lester and Angela. I’ve heard people declare that they refuse to watch it because of this plot point, and others have watched the film and disliked it for this reason alone. The mark of a great film, or a great piece of art in general, is that it can focus on a theme that is generally frowned upon by society, and make the audience accept it. I didn’t feel the slightest bit sickened by the relationship between Lester and Angela. In fact, I wouldn’t even say they enter into a relationship, per se. Both characters seem enthusiastic about the possibility of sexual exploration, and at no point is sexual harassment evident or implied. Again, I must stress that American Beauty does not use this element of the story as its fulcrum.
At its heart, American Beauty is about Lester realising that he lives an unhappy, monotonous life, and taking steps to fix that problem. He comes to realise that the ‘American Dream’ is just a myth, and that he needs to start doing things that make him happy—not things that society believes leads to happiness. We see Lester change his lifestyle by rebelling against his family and society’s expectations in general. He lusts over Angela, as his marriage to wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) has been reduced to a semblance of what it once was. He starts smoking marijuana once he is acquainted with his new next-door neighbour, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). He quits his job as an office worker to work in a fast food restaurant. He eventually buys his dream car – a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, without his wife’s knowledge. All of these actions help Lester to recapture the essence of his adolescence—a time when life’s challenges weren’t so distressing.
Lester’s wife, Carolyn, symbolises the irritating demands of society. She is a real-estate agent who is a portrait of materialism, without even knowing it. She doesn’t have to be happy to find contentment. Seeming happy is good enough for her. Her life revolves around the constant struggle of projecting an image. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, she fails to sell a house, and afterwards slaps her face with brute force and bawls her eyes out in that very house she failed to sell—all behind closed doors, of course. She tries to keep herself together by listening to a self-help tape which features the mantra “I refuse to be a victim.” Carolyn becomes involved in her very own adulterous sexual exploits, as you will find out.
“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air; you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and…this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. The video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember…and I need to remember: sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”
I have vague memories of first watching American Beauty when I was six years old. Fast forward nine years, and I could only remember specific images from it, but that was enough to make me buy the film on DVD, one Thursday afternoon in 2008. I immediately watched the film when I arrived home, and my eyes were filled with tears when the end credits began to roll. The film touched me in a profound way, and I knew that I had watched something special. One of my greatest values in life is truth. Many people have labelled American Beauty as a satire of American suburbia. I agree with that view, to a certain extent. The backdrop of American suburbia elegantly complements, though paradoxically contrasts against the film’s truthful elements. Though the film’s story is fictitious, I felt for the characters as though they were real people. I felt their joys, however scarce they were, and I occasionally ached for them. Let it be said: American Beauty is a film you need to watch experience at least once in your life.
Got your own Personal Bits? If you want to write about your favourite film, please let us know! We will feature a new one every week!