Death looms large in Youth in Oregon, Joel David Moore’s dramedy about an elderly man, Raymond Engersol (Frank Langella), who takes a road trip to Oregon so he can be euthanized, yet the film remains so thematically opaque that death, in its finality and complications, never crystallizes into something palpable. The filmmakers repeatedly sidestep the thornier ethical terrain laid out in the early scene where Raymond announces, at his 80th birthday dinner, his plans to kill himself. Tensions remain heightened as characters talk and scream at, rather than to, one another, creating a cacophony of emotions that repeatedly stifle any deeper philosophical inquiries. As the film spirals outward into a banally melodramatic observation of widespread familial dysfunction, the meaning of Raymond’s journey becomes watered down and lost somewhere between the griping of an irascible old man and the family who doesn’t think he’ll follow through with his decision.
Paramount to all the quarreling is Raymond’s deceiving of his family, as he chooses not to reveal that his condition is terminal. The disconnect between the man’s headstrong yet justifiable choice and the family’s understandably misguided reactions drives the film’s emotional trajectory, from the hysterical neuroticism of Raymond’s daughter, Kate (Christina Applegate), and the drunken indifference of his wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), to the intense frustration of his son-in-law, Brian (Billy Crudup), who’s tasked with driving Raymond and convincing him to change his mind while Kate stays home to deal with her daughter Annie’s (Nicola Peltz) own personal dramas. Youth in Oregon is content to leave us stewing in Raymond’s callous intractability as his family struggles to comprehend his obstinacy.
In robbing the characters of the ability to honestly cope with and understand Raymond’s personal decision, the filmmakers avoid the compelling murky gray areas surrounding the issue of euthanasia. Audiences are instead forced behold the constant clamor as Raymond, a retired doctor unwilling to undergo heart surgery and gung-ho about dying, clashes with his family, who, believing he’s somewhat healthy, are well within their right to protest his decision at every turn. What could have been a deeper understanding of euthanasia is kept at bay by gratuitously overcooked subplots, which include Raymond visiting his estranged gay son, Danny (Josh Lucas).
Once Raymond finally arrives in Oregon, he meets up with a longtime friend who’s also about to be euthanized. Here, the film pauses for several minutes to linger on the process by which the friend’s daughter prepares the lethal dose of medication as the two men share a tender, frank exchange. It’s a touching, compassionate scene for how it approaches the subject of assisted suicide with the dignity and pathos it deserves, and it stands as an example of what the rest of Youth in Oregon could have been if it hadn’t been so distracted by irrelevant emotional grandstanding.