Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Joanne Woodward) is a middle-aged widow who lives in Staten Island with her two teenage daughters, and just barely scrapes by with her work as a telephone saleswoman, which she can do from the comfort of her own home. Her daughters are Matilda (Nell Potts), the sensitive younger one who is quietly passionate about her science classes, and Ruth (Roberta Wallach), the popular cheerleader and baton-twirler who makes no concessions to her sister's shyness nor her mother's brassiness. But life has been pressing down on each of them for some time, and it's only a matter of days before something's got to give as Beatrice realises what the world thinks of her...
Paul Newman, not content with starring in blockbuster movies and racing cars to championship level, also dabbled in direction. He had already directed his wife Woodward in the acclaimed drama Rachel, Rachel, and after that debut would go on to a number of other movies he helmed but did not star in himself, as if feeling his celebrity would overpower them if he appeared before the camera as well as working behind it. The old cliché about successful actors - "But what I'd really like to do is direct!" - was once more proven accurate, as by all accounts Newman took this role very seriously and dedicated himself to bringing esteemed drama to the big screen (and small, with a TV movie).
On seeing this effort with its ungainly title, drawn from the semi-autobiographical, Pulitzer-winning play of the previous decade, the general consensus was that it was well enough done but its commercial prospects were thin, and so it turned out as while Newman and Woodward received some acclaim (she won the Best Actress gong at the Cannes Film Festival), audiences did not exactly flock to this when their own lives in the seventies were not exactly a bed of roses (or marigolds) and they had little reason to want to be reminded of this fact in a movie that tended to rub their noses in the notion that modern life was rubbish. Beatrice's unkempt house is testament to that: she and her offspring basically live in a tip.
And her mind is no less messy, thanks to low self-esteem and a drinking problem; add to that a lack of funds and no prospects, either for a cash flow or a new man in her life (the only one who doesn't run a mile is a dirty old pervert who tries to assault her), and you did not have the healthiest of environments for two teenage girls to be brought up in. Ruth copes better than her sister, though still has her own secret shame of epilepsy, but Matilda is at best stoic, at worst subdued, cowed even, by her mother's behaviour, head almost always bowed, voice barely above a murmur, and only vaguely coming alive when she is able to discuss her favourite subject, that of science. She has thrown herself into her class project under the tutelage of the understanding teacher (David Spielberg), but this too arouses Beatrice's wrath.
What Beatrice has to realise is that she has been an embarrassment to her children all their lives, with her petty bickering turning to outright bitchiness, her erratic behaviour and unhelpful obsessions creating an mood at home that leaves them at a loss: do they fight back, as Ruth tries to do, even as she knows she needs her mother to look after her thanks to her condition, or do they buckle and retreat into themselves as Matilda does? Potts was actually Newman and Woodward's daughter and won even more glowing notices than her mother, even though she is as contained as possible, hardly acting at all - she was predicted to go onto great things in her parents' footsteps, yet chose to become an environmentalist, where she did great things in that field instead. But really, you couldn't call this anyone else's film but Woodward's, she was so dedicated to finding the truth in Beatrice that you could believe you'd met someone just like her, and if this was far from a cheering effort, it was valid in the way Newman intended. Music by Maurice Jarre.