December 01, 1980 12:00 PM

Robert Redford makes his debut as a director with this somber but memorable adaptation of Judith Guest’s 1976 best-seller about a suburban Chicago family torn apart by the accidental death of the elder of their teenage sons. In many ways Red-ford’s film heightens the impact of the book, leaving audiences weeping and thoughtful. The story is simple. The surviving son blames himself for his brother’s death; the parents are savagely divided. A psychiatrist tries to help the boy. The film ends with no loose ends neatly tied; the ambiguity is powerful. Throughout there is a feeling of voyeurism, of watching real people trying to cope with tragically real problems. Alvin Sargent’s screenplay lapses once in a while into psychiatric clichés but is otherwise lean and good. Director Redford has drawn skillfully on a brilliant cast. Timothy Hutton, 19-year-old son of the late actor Jim, is a marvel as the guilt-ridden son who finds comfort in analyst Judd Hirsch’s therapy and in the arms of Elizabeth McGovern, a stunning newcomer. As the tax attorney father trying to hold the family together, Donald Sutherland is a model of compassion, but the film’s hard edge comes from Mary Tyler Moore in a disciplined performance as the unforgiving mother Photographed without camera tricks to hide the age lines, MTM brings dignity to a role that seems excessively unsympathetic. It is an extraordinary achievement in an unforgettable film. (R)

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