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The story concerns the disintegration of an upper-middle class family in Lake Forest, Illinois, following the death of one of their sons in a boating accident.
The screenplay by Alvin Sargent was based upon the 1976 novel Ordinary People by Judith Guest.
Conrad's father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), tries to connect with his surviving son and understand his wife.
Stunned, Beth decides to leave her family rather than deal with her own, or their, emotions.
The film marked Mary Tyler Moore's career breakout from the personality of her other two famous roles as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Berger was likewise a departure from his work on the sitcom Taxi, and drew praise from many in the psychiatric community as one of the rare times their profession is shown in a positive light in film.
Moore's complex performance was well-received and obtained a nomination for Best Actress. Hirsch was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to co-star Hutton.
Donald Sutherland's performance in the film was also well received and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
He was not nominated for an Academy Award along with his co-stars, however, which Entertainment Weekly has described as one of the worst acting snubs in the history of the Academy Awards.