WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
One of the things most people tend to work to keep is appearance. They construct it like a persona that seems to grow more and more and take a life of its own. Such it is that the line dividing this persona and our actual selves is really blurred and soon fiction starts to overlap reality. Most times people aren’t aware of it, thus the image we created to be in conformity with society’s ideals or the achievements we think we must have repress our real selves, trapping us in a state of frustration and oppression.
A movie that captures this situation and shows us everything that is lost when we insist on keeping the lie is American Beauty. The 1999 movie explores the themes of materialism, appearances, control, denial and the search for meaning and beauty. It follows Lester Burnham, a middle age man whose relationships with his wife and daughter are deteriorated. When he sees Angela, a friend of his daughter, performing as a cheerleader in the school’s game, he becomes entranced. His fascination with Angela as well as his overall dissatisfaction with his life, specially his wife over control, prompts him to make a big change in attitude that affects his life in all manners possible.
Meanwhile, Lester’s new neighbors are dealing with problems of their own. Colonel Fitz is a conservative homophobic man who lives by the ideals of discipline and order and tries to control his son’s life, Ricky Fitz, through these same ideals. Ricky is a confident guy who’s not entrapped by illusions of appearance and conformity and has a fixation on filming his interests with a camera. One of those interests is Jane, Lester’s daughter.
American Beauty is a character driven movie. The arcs these characters go through are the means through which the movie makes its statements. Every revelation in the movie corroborates the fact that each person in this narrative is repressing their own feelings for the sake of keeping up appearances. Those appearances are needed to supposedly fill the holes in each character’s life by helping them dissociate from the idea of imperfection or inadequacy provided by their own nature.
Lester and his wife, Carolyn, are keeping up the appearance of a perfect life. They have jobs that pay well, a good house, a car, but none of this seems to be sufficient. Carolyn is an ambitious realtor who’s not quite satisfied with her success rates. She starts an affair with her competitor and tries to exude an image of success in hopes that she will feel successful. None of this is enough since the affair doesn’t provide the real connection she needed and all of the material things she has cannot make her feel more satisfied.
Colonel Fitz is the perfect archetype of masculinity, at least in appearance. He’s from the army, thus he’s an example of discipline and order. His homophobic nature is later revealed to be a manifestation of his own repressed homosexual desires. Angela seems to be super confident. She’s the archetype of beauty, blonde and thin, but in reality she’s insecure. She fears she’s ordinary and to hide that she is arrogant to others.
The only characters that don’t keep a facade, at least not in the same way the others do, are Jane and Ricky. Jane has an awful relationship with her parents and is insecure about her looks. When Ricky starts to show interest in her, though, she begins to change and grows the courage to feel good about whom she truly is. Ricky knows exactly who he is, so he’s not shaken about the pressures from society. Ironically, the only facade he keeps is the one that permits him to be himself. To prevent his father from interfering more in his life, he maintains different posture with him that doesn’t really show his true opinions.
Ricky is portrayed as what people must seek to achieve. He is free from the necessity of building a persona to keep up appearances. He’s not interested in general classifications of beauty. Through his camera he films every moment he deems interesting as a means to see the beauty in the world, which can be found anywhere. He goes as far as filming a plastic bag and saying it is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. This shows he’s not trapped by classical ideals of beauty, but rather he sees the true beauty of things, which is in life itself.
The film conveys a message of the futility of our society and how it shapes our lives. By trying to repress our true selves in order to portray an image which we think fits best society’s standards we’re in a way killing ourselves. Lester states this when in the beginning of the movie he says he would be dead in a year, but that in a way he was dead already. The characters in the movie don’t truly live but actually go through life sustaining a fantasy that doesn’t really help them feel better.
This fantasy is fueled by materialistic mentality or inflexible ideals. Carolyn holds on to her possessions to keep the lie. Col. Fitz does the same through the attachment to discipline and Angela by using the standard idea of beauty to her advantage. Lester’s rebellion against this way of living brings change to everyone around him, since his actions directly and indirectly lead the people in his life to confront their own lies.
The end result for each character is vastly different. Lester gets to a point where he feels free and really enjoys his life. Angela and he almost have sex, but after a display of her insecurities, he instead comforts her and they share a meaningful connection. Jane, with the help of Ricky, frees herself from the appearances entrapment. Col. Fitz, though, after having a sexual attempt rejected by Lester, decides not to face his demons but to make the embodiment of his distress disappear. So he kills Lester.
Lester’s death hits Carolyn hard, who cries embracing his clothes, maybe seeing for the first time how the feelings she repressed made her waste time in her life. Every character’s approach to Lester’s death is different, but serves a purpose in the confirmation or insisting denial of their self discovery arcs. Our main character doesn’t feel frustrated about his death, since it came about in the moment he finally could see life as it is, stripped of all labels and expectations.
When Jane and Ricky find Lester’s body, the latter approaches it with his camera to register the moment. He’s able to see the beauty in unexpected places, and that shows us we have a choice: to keep repressing oneself or to truly be who you are and, in this way, truly live.
The prisons we live in are of our own making. We get so caught up by big ideas and expectations that we forget to pay attention at the small things. We also forget that everybody acts in a way that is a reflex of their own insecurities. The catharsis Lester goes through the film is one we must experience if we want to be comfortable in our own skin and live life how it’s supposed to, without control. Only then we’ll be able to see the underlying beauty of life.