Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep), vivacious mother of two adult children and wife of literature professor George Gulden (William Hurt), has just been diagnosed with cancer. George conscripts daughter Ellen (Renée Zellweger) to take care of her mother because his duties at the university won’t allow him enough time to do so himself. This doesn’t sit well with Ellen, whose ambitious writing career must be put on the backburner for the length of her service. Although Kate is worried that this circumstance will eventually cause her daughter to resent her, Ellen insists on following through with this commitment.
Although quietly resentful of Kate’s homebody persona, Ellen slowly comes to appreciate her mother in a way that had eluded her throughout childhood. She also comes to see her father in a more realistic, less idealized, way than she had before. The growth she experiences as a human being follows directly with her mom’s deteriorating condition. Finding a new respect for her mother and the life she led, Ellen finds herself contemplating euthanasia when Kate’s pain reaches unbearable pain and her love for life is extinguished. All of this sets the stage for the interview with a district attorney over her mother’s death, which serves as the movie’s framework narrative.
Between this film and "Jerry Maguire", Renée Zellweger is quickly establishing herself as one of this generation’s premiere dramatic actresses. Although Meryl Streep gives another in her continuous line of flawless performances, "One True Thing" is really a showcase for Zellweger, whose onscreen transformation from self-absorbed workaholic to patient caregiver is wholly believable. As profoundly moving as the film is, though, its unrelenting crusade to jerk tears from one’s eyes is ultimately exhausting. I wonder if George Gulden’s mantra in the film, "less is more", couldn’t have been taken into consideration by the filmmakers themselves.