A rose. Countless scarlet petals compose one flower, but along the stem thorns stick out every which way. What is a rose but a beautiful mass of contradictions? It has been used as a symbol for love, passion, savage beauty, and eroticism. But one must always consider those thorns, a defense mechanism for the flower but also a curse on its beauty. “American Beauty,” starring Kevin Spacey, answers the question of what a rose is by exploring the intertwined lives of middle-class suburban Americans.
Lester Burnham (Spacey) is your typical American father and husband. He has a typical wife (Annette Bening) who sells real estate, and a typical teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch). So what makes this story so compelling? “Typical” is the enemy of this picture. Lester has been flung into a mid-life crisis and everyone around him feels its ripples. He has fantasies about his daughter’s alluring best friend (Mena Suvari), quits his job to work at a fast-food restaurant, and buys an expensive car. His wife likes to keep up a front that everything is fine, which hurts and alienates both her daughter and husband. Jane is the third wheel in this tripod of a family and resents both parents.
This movie is about the defense mechanisms people use to avoid being hurt or accepting a hard truth (overt sexuality and self-deception) and duality. Every character has a likeable trait, but all have intrinsic flaws. For example, Jane’s boyfriend, who can see beauty in anything, sells drugs.
Roses are used sparingly throughout the film as symbols for all kinds of things, from passion and lust in Lester’s fantasies to the truly violent acts people can do that destroy beauty (which brings the audience to the tragic end).
“American Beauty” is a genuine masterpiece. Viewers will find shadows of themselves in the characters. What this movie tries to say is that everyone is a rose in the duality and self preservation of their natures. But the real question is how sharp are your thorns?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.