August is a family movie, but it revolves around a dysfunctional one. It reminds you that family can be hard-hitting and that tempers and mouths can flow freely and just as easily as smiles and hugs. Streep plays Violet Weston, a recent widow, whose husband, Beverly a once noted poet played by Sam Shepherd killed himself. Violet’s three middle aged daughters – Barbara (Roberts), Karen (Lewis) and Ivy (Nicholson) come together, along with various other members of the family for the funeral. As the family gets together, several skeletons comes tumbling out from the closet while the family tries its best to maneuver around them. Streep plays the drug addict, foul mouthed matriarch of the Weston family, and her bitter words smolders severely. She however calls it “truth telling’ and everyone seems to go along it for a while, till Barbara snaps and pounces on her at the family lunch after a particularly onerous session of ‘truth telling’. This scene has to be the most comic and pathetic of the movie. But I agree with Violet on one count, I would never dare to call my mother a liar to her face, something that Jean (Breslin) does to Barbara at the family lunch and even she is not spared from Violet’s vituperative attacks –“… if ever I called my mom a liar she would knock my goddam head off my shoulders”.
Meryl Streep is the very epitome of grace and poise and daintiness to a certain extent, so no, I did not expect to see her as a shrewd, drug addict matriarch, with a vicious tongue. She delves into the persona of Violet right from the word go, and it is surprisingly easy to detest her, even though we are aware of the fact that she is dying from oral cancer. It is ironic too that she is suffering from oral cancer, maybe it is because of all the toxic words strewn around over the years. The role gives Streep a record 18th Oscar nomination; if she wins it will be her fourth. I believe she moves ahead with the mantra – Outdo your previous performance. Julia Roberts as the eldest daughter Barbara has the most screen space out of all the three daughters and it was refreshing to see her at her best after spending quite a few years on the bench. Being her father’s favourite, she is the target of Violet’s particular scorn. Trapped in an unhappy marriage that is probably heading for a divorce, with a teenage daughter who despises her, Barbara is terrified of turning into her own mother. But she shows how strong she is, both physically and mentally when she wrestles her mother to floor and yanks the pills from her and yells out “I am running things now!”
While Streep and Roberts can share the honours for the leading role, they were backed up by some remarkable supporting acting. Chris Cooper as Violet’s brother-in-law Charles Aiken, Benedict Cumberbatch as his son ‘Little Charles’ Aiken and Ewan McGregor as Barbara’s husband Bill Fordham all worked the script well, as much as the script gave freedom to the male characters, which even though wasn’t a lot, but they made it count. Margo Martindale as Violet’s sister and Charles’s wife Mattie Fae, Juliet Lewis as Karen, the second daughter and Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, the youngest daughter added to the mayhem of this dysfunctional family seamlessly.
The only thing that bothered me with the script was the lack of development of Misty Upham’s character as Johnna Monevata, who was hired by Beverly at the beginning of the movie to help look after a sick Violet. She keeps fleeting in and out throughout the movie, and is a participant in most of the critical scenes, including the climax. This is why I feel that her character should have been developed more, so that the ending could have been more attuned.
August is a ruthless and graphic film, without the blood and gore of a horror movie.