Youth In Oregon tells the story of Raymond Engersoll (Frank Langella), a former doctor who lives with his wife Estelle (Mary Kay Place) in the home of their daughter Kate Gleason (Christina Applegate) and her family. On the day of his eightieth birthday, Raymond receives the news that he will have to undergo another heart operation, one from which he’s unlikely to emerge, but without the operation, he will certainly die.
So, Raymond makes a decision: he’ll go back to his home in Oregon, where he can commit legal suicide with the assistance of a doctor. He doesn’t tell his family about the prognosis, but simply announces to them that he’s tired of living and has made arrangements. Circumstances collide so that Kate’s long-suffering husband Brian (Billy Crudup) ends up volunteering to drive Raymond and Estelle from New York to Oregon, under the mistaken belief that Raymond won’t be able follow through on his plan.
There are so many different ways that a story such as this one can go that it’s to Youth In Oregon’s credit that it opts for the human and the humane, rather than the melodramatic. While the Engersoll and Gleason family is exceptionally dysfunctional, it is a realistic dysfunction, born of repression and unspoken conflict that cause the members of the family to constantly butt heads and even cease speaking to each other. But there are no massive secrets, no gut-wrenching revelations; the characters are neither wholly likable nor wholly off-putting. Their problems, where they have them, are part and parcel of the complexity and depth of all human stories.
At the heart of the film is the extraordinary performance of Frank Langella. He provides a curmudgeonly, humorous, and at times hateful portrayal of Raymond, a man whose exceptional self-centeredness vies with his need for companionship and connection. Unbending in his forward motion, Langella keeps his gaze fixated ahead, as though unable to look members of his family in the eye even as he goes to his own death.
He loves his family, but criticizes them at every turn. Moments of quietude and intimacy are broken by lashing remarks, while moments of conflict suddenly fall into sharp relief as Raymond reveals another, small piece of himself. He gives nothing away, making it all the more profound when Raymond reveals something of his internal makeup, his desires, and his struggle.
This film does not only belong to Langella, however. Each actor lends weight and complexity to their characters, developing how they are affected by Raymond’s decision, their lack of belief in the reality of his approaching death, and their own struggles within the family unit. Langella, Crudup, and Place share much of the film’s dramatic weight, as a large portion of the action follows them on the road.
Latecomers, meanwhile, include Josh Lucas as the Engersolls’ estranged son Danny, himself in conflict with his acerbic father, and Alex Shaffer as the equally distant son of Brian and Kate. There is the palpable sense of family – a family dysfunctional and angry in their own ways, loving each other but dissatisfied with one another as well. Connections by cellphone form a large part of the narrative tension, with calls made, missed, and ignored becoming important in developing the forward motion of the narrative and the fragmenting relationships of the characters.
All that being said, there are weaknesses in Youth In Oregon. Elements like Raymond’s love of birds and birdsong are introduced but seem to carry little narrative weight. There’s almost too much conflict at times, upping the tension and making the viewer as though things might explode at any minute. Brian and Kate’s two children are largely non-entities, and their conflict with their parents at times feels more like a diversion than an integral part of the story.
Furthermore, Annie (Nicola Peltz), Brian and Kate’s daughter, is less a character than a plot device, and her brother a latecomer meant to cast new light on the character of Brian. Yet even these somewhat messy flaws highlight the basic nature of Youth In Oregon – it is a film about humans and humans are nothing if not messy creatures.
Youth In Oregon is a story about families, in all their complex, dysfunctional glory. It is also about dying with dignity, but without selfishness. It’s about the lengths people will go to for those that they love, and how damaging we can be to those we care for the most. Euthanasia is never going to be an easy topic to discuss, and Youth in Oregon doesn’t make it easy. Instead, it makes it complex, unique, sorrowful, and, ultimately, profound.
A surprisingly uplifting film about a very difficult topic, Youth In Oregon's remarkable ensemble cast elevate the story into something unique and profound.