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The Sibling Connection

Death of a Sibling in Films


Stand By Me starring River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton (Wesley from Star Trek TNG), and Kiefer Sutherland


Four boys, in the summer before starting junior high, set off on a trip to find a dead body. They each come from homes where they are mistreated in one way or another. Gordie (Wil Wheaton) has recently lost his older brother. His mother has withdrawn in to herself and his father seems to wish that Gordie was the one who died. Although Gordie is not the strongest or the fastest or the meanest, within the realm of their adventure, he is the one with the authority that comes from having experienced a death to someone close. When I first saw this film, I didn't pay any attention to the actors' names. I was amazed by the portrayal of Gordie's friend, Chris, so I looked him up. It broke my heart to realize that this was River Phoenix, knowing he died on Halloween of 1993 with his brother Joaquin Phoenix right beside him. It seems strange that early death is the subject of so many of River's works in film and music, almost as if he was drawn to it, a foreshadowing of what would happen to him.

This video was created by a fan showing the two brothers and her belief that River is still watching over his family.


Ray, The Movie starring Jamie Foxx, Ragina King, and Kerry Washington

Born into poverty, but rich in talent, Ray Charles experienced the trauma of watching his younger brother drown when they were both young children. This event would haunt him for much of his life. The film shows how he became blind and how his mother encouraged him to overcome it, his early musical career and how he developed from a naive musician to a skillful businessman. Throughout, his use of drugs and alcohol cause him more and more problems until finally, he faces the original incident that caused his guilt -- not being able to help his brother when he drowned -- and Ray is able to stop using mind altering substances. By the use of flashbacks, the film gives the viewer a ringside seat into Ray Charles emotional state, which I felt was eerily accurate in terms of the way trauma haunts the survivor.

This video shows the scene where, in imagination, he is released from his guilt.


Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon

This is the life of Johnny Cash, played by the amazing Joaquin Phoenix, and his well known romance with June Carter, played by the lovely and talented Reese Witherspoon. As a child, Cash's father was abusive and he got most of his emotional sustenance from his older brother Jack. That ends when Jack dies after an accident at a sawmill. Johnny would suffer from guilt for much of his life because he went fishing that day. The film follows his musical career after he leaves the Air Force, his marriage and subsequent divorce, and his relationship with June Carter. Like the story of Ray Charles, the movie shows how he tried to "self-medicate" his guilt by the use of drugs and alcohol, and how he finally kicks his habit and goes on as a calmer and happier man. In the film he proposes to June Carter onstage in Canada, after June tells him that she will only speak to him onstage. Their life together is one of the legends of the entertainment world.

Here's a trailer for the movie.


The Invisible Circus starring Cameron Diaz, Jordana Brewster, Christopher Eccleston

Like many survivors whose sibling committed suicide, teenage Phoebe, played by Jordana Brewster, wants to know "Why?" Why did her hippie sister, Faith, played by Cameron Diaz, jump off a cliff to her death? She travels to Europe and re-traces her sister's steps, eventually coming to an understanding that helps her resolve her grief. Phoebe's relationship with Wolf, played by Christopher Eccleston, shows how intensely she identified with her older sister. Issues of sibling rivalry are introduced in the film, which are somewhat resolved by Phoebe's new memories that surface after she learns why her sister died.
Here's the trailer.


Little Women starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon
This is a semi-autobiographical account of author Louisa May Alcott's life. Anyone who read the book as a child will be interested to see how this version of the story looks. This is the story of four sisters and their mother, living in the nineteenth century. Before I saw the film, I thought Winona Ryder was just beautiful, but she can act too! Here she plays Jo March, the most enlightened of the four sisters, who aspires to be a writer. Her mother, played by Susan Sarandon, encourages her. When her ailing sister, Beth, dies, Jo is able to write from the heart and the story she writes is this one. Although simplistic, the movie clearly shows how her creativity soothes her in her grief.
A scene from the film.



Ordinary People starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton

In this story, teenage Buck Jarrett has died in a tragic boating accident. His father, Calvin Jarrett, played by Donald Sutherland, and his mother, Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore, each react differently to his death. Their younger son, Conrad, played by Timothy Hutton, who survived the accident, responded by attempting suicide. His mother is sometimes hostile towards Conrad, behavior that exemplifies the bereaved parent's finding a scapegoat for anger in a surviving sibling. Conrad is seeing psychologist, Dr. Berger, played by Judd Hirsch, and trying to work through his guilt about surviving. The film shows how trauma can be buried, causing painful symptoms, and then released into consciousness. It also shows how family members sometimes wall themselves off from each other after a death.
Here's the trailer.





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