TWO STARS - SHALLOW
Sammy and Terry are orphaned people. It is not just that they are orphans because their parents were tragically killed in an automobile accident when they were young, but Sammy and Terry are orphaned by everyone. All the usual people one turns to in order to find understanding and support are shallow shells of compassionate love, so Sammy and Terry are left to fend for themselves.
In this world every relationship is a disappointment: parents die; siblings fight; spouses betray; lovers use; friends flake; and ministers waffle. In spite of the title’s proclamation, there is ironically no one anyone can count on.
Set within a small town in upstate New York, the film jumps from the early automobile accident and the funeral service to Sammy’s (Laura Linney) life about 20 years later.
A single mom who lives in the home her parents left to her at their death, Sammy is struggling to find her way. Deeply committed to her 8 year-old son Rudy (Rory Culkin), she is ecstatic to receive a letter from her younger brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) who has been drifting for several years.
Resembling the parable of the prodigal son who has been to far away places wasting his life, Terry has gotten into trouble in a way that requires his seeking Sammy’s help. But rather than coming home to unconditional love, Terry comes home to the needy and conditional love of his big sister.
This is the first level of their orphaned lives. Crying to one another that they wish their mother was there to tell them what to do, both Sammy and Terry realize they have no one to guide them through the painful choices life requires. Instead, they cling to one another as spiritual and relational orphans.
When Sammy turns to an old boy friend to seek his counsel about how to tell her son about his abusive father, he has nothing to say. When she turns in frustration to her new supervisor at work, his own marital problems and sexual frustration lead them into an affair. When she turns to her minister for guidance regarding the sin of adultery, he offers her weak psychobabble in place of wise counsel. Rather than the usual support system of friends and family, coworkers and pastors, everyone in her life once more orphans Sammy.
The same is true for Terry. Having turned to marijuana and alcohol to mask his depression and grief, Terry tries to place Sammy into the role of his surrogate mother. But Sammy is still a child herself. Unable to provide either the stability or guidance he needs, she turns to her minister for help. But the joyless minister only causes Terry to mock his advice and punish her efforts. This leaves him floundering even further in his orphaned state.
In the midst of these loveless lives, Sammy’s son Rudy experiences his own pain of abandonment. When Uncle Terry tries to introduce Rudy to his real father whom he has never met, poor Rudy experiences the trauma of his own father claiming that he is not really his son. From one generation to the next there is no one you can count on.
Sammy and Terry could have benefited greatly from someone with love and wisdom adopting them into their care. If either had experienced a real spiritual connection with God, they could have experienced the adoption their orphaned souls longed to find as well.