Lessons from American Beauty

This post contains spoilers from the 1999 American film American Beauty. If you don't like spoilers or you've not seen the film, go watch it and return later. You've been warned.

Last Friday, I had the privilege of watching American Beauty. It was such an outstanding film I asked myself, "Why have I waited so long to see this?" Yet, it's understandable. The synopsis is unappealing, A sexually frustrated suburban father has a mid-life crisis after becoming infatuated with his daughter's best friend.[1] Umm.... okay, no thanks. Reading the synopsis robs the film of any justice. I can only highly recommend everyone watch it.

Prior to viewing it, my favorite film was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. However, everyday I reconsider this for one particular reason: this film had an impact on me. More than Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (in a good way). And even at the ending when the credits began to roll I was left alone with my thoughts on what the director wanted to convey through this work. Riddled with symbolism, dark humor and brilliant ideas on life's meaning and death it is almost difficult to leave the film without feeling anything. I envy those who saw it in cinema the day of release. And if there was some profound conclusion in which I had left with, it is to find the beauty in everything.[2]

American Beauty is innapropriate, I will admit. Nevertheless, it has a harsh MPAA rating of restricted (Rated R) which means you've to be 17 or older to see it alone. It is not sexually explicit but the subject matter and discussions make it unsuitable for younger viewers? It stars Kevin Spacey, (before the world found out what a monster he is) as Lester Burnham who becomes the catalyst for everything that unfolds. In no way is this post an attempt to critique the work. That takes time. Neither will I discuss in depth, Lester's brazen and uncanny attraction to an underage girl. Yet, there are some lessons I learned while watching the film that I feel the need to share. Certainly, these aren't all of them and depending on the viewer one might believe differently.

Lester Burnham, the main character of American Beauty works in advertising. It's apparent that he doesn't like his job or his life. He is not happy but bored of the constant routine. He lives life passively like a zombie until the day he meets his daughter's friend Angela. This is the first portion of the film that confounded me. Because it was Angela that forced or rather encouraged Lester to reinvent himself to such an extent that in mantra throughout the film I asked, "What happened to him?" Because, in no attempt to endorse or justify gender roles, Lester's wife Carolyn was the obvious superior or alpha of the family. As some would say, she was "der mann." Lester would accept verbal abuse and all sorts of harassment from his wife. However, when Man reinvents himself he is reborn. And this not only included physical transformation but mental as well.

To appear more attractive to his daughter's friend Lester begins to workout. He also quits his job (well he's technically fired, kind of) by immorally extorting his boss and secures a year's salary. He then gets a job at a fast food restaurant that he seems pleased to work at. His attitude and confidence also quickly change. When he catches his wife cheating on him at his job's drive-through, he handles himself maturely. Which is ironic as earlier in his rebirth I quipped how his behavior equated to that of a teenager's. Yet, during the last months of his life Lester truly finds happyness.

Lessons I learned from American Beauty

  • Take Risks

Lester took a risk by quitting his job. A father of one but with a family to care for this was a reckless decision. Yet, he didn't let the situation stop him.

  • Live your best authentic life / Be your best authentic self (live your truth)

At the end of the film, Lester is murdered by his daughter's boyfriend's father - retired US Marine Corps Coloniel Frank Fitts after Fitts reveals to Lester that he is a homosexual.[3] It is this event that causes Frank to murder Lester in the end of the film. Because no one must know his secret.

  • Have morals to live by

Although this is a good lesson to learn, the decision Lester made fails to justify his intentions. In the end of the film he has his chance with Angela. However, after learning that she is a virgin and had lied about her promiscuity he no longer seeks sexual intercourse with her. Lester doesn't get a pardon because he changes his mind about having sex with an underage girl. This doesn't make him good or relents his past behavior. However, this lesson did not escape me.

  • Accept the things you cannot change

A Stoic principle. Lester accepted that his wife had cheated on him and that he could do nothing. Nevertheless, he did not let this situation affect him.

  • Don't settle. EVER.

If you want something, go get it. Don't settle for less or with whatever is available. Lester was a basic and stereotypical suburban father who lived a very boring and repetitive life. Eventually, he broke out of this cycle and found some purpose. It's difficult to communicate this with synopsis in mind. However, another example would be Lester's unhappiness with his wife, her materialism and obsession with nonsensical things. He took it upon himself to curb her behavior.

What does American Beauty say about normality?

I don't know. That conformity is boring? I think the issue with suburban culture is that it is very bland. It's arguably a slice of the "American Dream." If you've made it to suburbia then surely you've made it in America. Right? Yet, normality is dull and even those in suburbia haven't found joy because of the environment or pseudo success. It fails to provide even a sense of escapism from the stresses of the world and incomparably others living elsewhere, (in urban or rural environments) may be just as happy without the unnecessary scale of life that accompanies such a setting.

What does American Beauty say about self-reinvention?

Possibly one of my favorite aspects of the film. Lester is motivated immorally, but yet he is motivated and begins to live his best life. He changes his situation, truly taking his life into his own hands. In terms of reinvention, I would say anyone and everyone is capable of change. One just needs to find a reason to change.

At the end of the film we are left with what was initially not to be the ending. Lester was indeed to have sex with Angela and they would then run away together. But this did not happen and we were given the current ending where he is murdered. An ending which I am satisfied with. Because in a way, Lester's refusal to have sex with Angela is a small moment of redemption. A sort of confession where he asks for forgiveness and then he has truly been reborn. I like this ending.

  1. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0169547/ ↩︎

  2. This is one of my favorite scenes from the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB0th8vNLxo ↩︎

  3. The circumstances relating to this event were comical. If someone wants to believe something they truly will. ↩︎