Little Augusten Burroughs and his mother, Deirdre, share a peculiarly symbiotic relationship. She showers the child with the attention he craves and he gives her an ever-present audience for mundane poetry readings as she imagines her "inevitable" fame. But as the 1970s progress, the boy also has to bear witness to his mother's increasingly frequent battles with his father, Norman—a disinterested, disconnected drunk. After one particularly violent clash, the parents call in the aid of Dr. Finch and his new-age brand of counterculture psychotherapy.
The doctor demands five-hour daily sessions.
This leads to Norman bailing on the family and Deirdre finding the renewed creativity (and Valium) she needs to follow her hyper-feminist dream of self-actualization. Unfortunately, it also precipitates Augusten's spiral into a childhood nightmare as Deirdre throws him aside to follow her own narcissistic pursuits. Dr. Finch, who has a history of adopting patients to procure their money, offers to adopt the boy. And through no choice of his own, the poor teen is moved into a decaying pink mansion filled with garbage and the demented, predatory, anything goes Finch family.
Based on what's reportedly an embellished memoir by real-life Augusten Burroughs, Running With Scissors focuses on adults who are so selfish that everyone around them suffers. However, this painful environment makes tender moments in the film stand out with a vibrant poignancy. For example, as Norman is moving out of his home, he stops at the door and looks back at Augusten as if seeing him for the first time. The man silently walks over and kisses his son on the head before leaving.
At the crazy Finch house, Augusten finds solace in Mrs. Finch, a listless, bedraggled matriarch who usually sits nearly catatonic on the sofa eating doggie-kibble and watching old black-and-white TV shows. The wounded boy brings out her motherly side and she becomes the most loving person in his life. Eventually she helps him escape the grip of the family. As he waits for a bus out of town she tells him, "You're the best son a mom could want. You need to know that." Augusten also connects with the family's youngest daughter, Natalie. They recognize the similar agonies they share and Augusten tries to take her with him when he leaves.
The family expresses a grotesquely misshapen view of God. Eldest daughter Hope makes life decisions by playing a game she calls Bible dipping (she likens it to a Magic 8-ball). She opens Scripture and randomly points to a word and uses that as a message of direction. One morning, Dr. Finch runs down the hallway screaming of miracles and calls the family into the bathroom. He points to his bowel movement and claims it to be a sign from God ("It's a direct communication from Holy God our Father"). Through exclamations of praise, he orders his wife to scoop it out and create a shrine.
When the family is feeling financial pressure from the IRS, Finch says, "We'll pray God will take care of us." Natalie retorts, "And when God turns a deaf ear, we can all live in the car." Dr. Finch has a poster with a baby Jesus imprinted on it in his office. Hope also claims to get psychic messages from her cat, saying he's sick and dying. (She keeps him quarantined and he eventually starves to death.) Hope is later seen stirring a pot at the stove that she says contains the dead pet. "He told me he wanted to be reincarnated ... as a stew."
The film disgustingly and repeatedly treats all sexual choices as perfectly natural, even those made by—or forced upon—children. For example, Neil Bookman, a lonely, 35-year-old gay man (subject to fits of rage) lives in the garage in back of the Finch house. He seduces 15-year-old Augusten (who claims he is gay, but who has never been sexual) and the two are shown shirtless and sweaty in bed after a physical encounter. Augusten falls back on the pillow, panting, and chokes out, "What was that?" And Neil replies, "That's what gay men do." It's pointed out that Dr. Finch believes a child to be an adult when he or she turns 13 and the entire family (including Augusten's mother) accept the ongoing gay relationship as a matter of course.
Natalie tells Augusten of a relationship that she had with a 41-year-old man when she was 13. She relates that when the man became violent and broke her collarbone, he was pressed into donating $75,000 to Natalie's college fund (all of which was spent on back taxes by Dr. Finch).
Thus, abhorrent, abusive and criminal behavior is absolved onscreen as the family either embraces it, exploits it or tiptoes around it.
Augusten walks in on his mother kissing another woman. He is flustered by this, but his mom explains that all her life she has been oppressed by one person or another and that she will no longer "oppress" her desires. She spits out self-righteously, "I hope I don't have to fight oppression from you, too."
The doctor talks openly about his own sexual proclivities with his patients (including Augusten) and refers to an adjacent room as his "masturbatorium." We see Deirdre drugged out on her bed in a slip. And Natalie's daily sex-kitten attire usually consists of skimpy hot pants and a midriff-baring low-cut top.
During a drunken scream-fest, Norman charges his wife and runs headfirst into a kitchen cabinet, cutting his forehead and knocking himself out. As he starts to recover, Augusten says to him, "Please don't kill her."
Neil gets frustrated that Dr. Finch's treatments don't seem to be helping him get rid of the taunting voices he hears in his head. So he begins trashing the doctor's office and culminates his tirade by coming across the doctor's desk and taking him by the throat. Later, Neil is convinced that if he could kill Finch then everyone would be free of his puppet-master control. He breaks into the house late at night and moves to stab the doctor with a pair of scissors.
Natalie connects Augusten to an electro-shock machine and is interrupted seconds before pumping 1,000 volts into him.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Dr. Finch hands out drugs like lemon drops. In one instance, he casually offers Neil some meds from a new shipment with, "You want some of this? I'm not sure what's in here." We see Deirdre impacted the most by the open spigot of medication. Her collection of pill bottles continuingly grows as we watch her pop handfuls and descend into deeper and deeper stages of addiction. Finally, she begins having psychotic and hallucinatory episodes that drive her to a sanatorium.
Augusten is also the recipient of the doctor's medicinal largesse. When the teen complains that he doesn't want to go to school, Finch tells him that the only way he could legally get him out of going would be if it looked like he had tried to commit suicide. Augusten balks and Finch says, "Where is your spirit of adventure?" The confused boy then attempts an overdose and is rushed to the hospital for a stomach pump.
Most of the adults are also shown drinking wine and hard liquor, and cigarettes are smoked by adults and teens alike. Augusten isn't a smoker until he's offered a cigarette by an adult. Dr. Finch smokes a pipe.
Halfway through this story of a young man whose Medea-like mother blithely tosses him into the arms of predatory monsters, you wonder why you're still sitting there. And I'm not just talking about how I felt. Because this was about the time when people at the advance screening I attended started leaving the theater. (A rare occurrence these days.) It wasn't the performances that drove them away. Most of the actors—especially Evan Rachel Wood—are stellar. There are also comedic and tender moments. And I can see how "open-minded" intellectuals or a certain sort might chuckle off this movie as another dysfunctional family comedy set in those crazy, shag-carpeted '70s.
But there's nothing here that should be laughed off. This is a vulgar, loathsome film that looks at pedophilia, homosexuality and homosexual pedophilia with the same non-judgmental attitude as its scatologically challenged Dr. Finch does. Not that anyone should expect anything less from director and writer Ryan Murphy, the man responsible for one of television's most repugnant series, Nip/Tuck.
Murphy does manage to vomit out a vivid illustration of mankind's pell-mell bent toward foolishness and cruelty, which he colorfully dolls up as a quirky comedy. He shows a bunch of people making a bunch of horrible choices with very few direct consequences (other than the continuing muck of a life they live in) and with no solutions other than to run away.
Which is pretty much what every unlucky soul who buys a ticket will want to do, too. At about the halfway point. Or earlier.