There are many true things about One True Thing, a wonderfully honest tearjerker that takes great pains to steer clear of melodrama in presenting the story of a peaceful family torn asunder by cancer.
Like a fine Merlot, director Carl Franklin allows this film to breathe, building the story around the mundane elements of family life, drawing the audience in through familiarity, and allowing the tension to slowly, quietly escalate to a few, well-placed scenes of confrontation and revelation.
The phenomenal Meryl Streep again performs brilliantly as Kate Gulden, a New England mother just this side of a Stepford wife. Tragically, the day after throwing her husband George’s (the terrific William Hurt) fifty-fifth birthday/Come-As-Your-Favorite-Literary-Character party, Kate is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Meryl treats her character with dignity and respect, never condescending to Kate’s contentment with her suburban housewife existence. In turn, Kate, wasting away from the ravages of the dread disease, is truly dignified, a woman with a very real sense of purpose.
Renee Zellweger underplays Kate’s daughter Ellen with sincerity, never dipping into a trick bag of histrionics or maudlin sentiment to achieve sympathy for her character or the situation. At the behest of George, the writer/professor father she idolizes, the ambitious young Harvard graduate climbing the ladder as a budding journalist for New York Magazine is forced to move home and serve as Kate’s caretaker.
Ellen is wary of her homecoming. She even says at one point, "The one thing I never wanted to do was live my mother's life.” She openly ridicules Kate’s world of bake sales and civic activities. But, once the shoe is on the other foot, Ellen eventually comes to understand and respect her mother. And she also begins to build up resentment toward her father.
George has all but abandoned the household, ostensibly for the sake of his duties running the literature department, but, as Ellen soon realizes, his betrayal stems from a self-absorbed fear. William Hurt is absolutely gut wrenching as the painfully failed artist and father. In the face of this family tragedy, his philandering , drunkenness and other hidden shames are gradually revealed to Ellen.
The incredible restraint Franklin uses in directing this film allows this well-trod subject matter to never degenerate into hysterical made-for-TV-movie cliches. Rather than just accept the emotion, the audience is allowed to embrace it. Bravo!.