Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Bridge to Terabithia
Producers: Lauren Levine, Hal Liberman, David Paterson
Jeff Stockwell, David Paterson
Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Zooey Deschanel, Robert Patrick, Bailee Madison
Year of Release:
The big-screen adaptation of Katherine Paterson's award-winning 1977 children's book captures its powerful and bittersweet spirit.
In 1976, Katherine Paterson's son, David, who co-wrote the script for this movie, was eight years old when his friend, Lisa Hill, was struck by lightning and killed. His mother drew upon his personal tragedy to create the story of a boy, Jesse Aarons, and a girl, Leslie Burke, fifth graders in rural Virginia, who become the best of friends.
Jesse is the ignored middle child and only son of a reticent father, who struggles to earn a living. Of his four children, dad favors his youngest daughter, May Belle. He works all the time, and reprimands his son frequently. Jesse is an artist, although none of his family members and schoolmates see much value in his aptitude with pencil and paint. Leslie is the new kid in the Jesse's class. She is the only child of two wealthy, successful, self-involved writers who barely notice when she is not there. They have moved to the country, next door to the Aarons. Despite being lively and energetic, Leslie is scorned as readily as Jesse because her parents don't want her to watch TV, and because she is an artist too. Her particular discipline is writing.
Jesse and Leslie are picked on by bullies and need to cope with a tyrannical teacher named Mrs. Meyers. The connection between the two kids is hesitant at first, particularly after Leslie usurps Jesse's title as the fastest runner in their class at Lark Creek Elementary. Jesse is nearly as hostile toward the girl as his classmates. But eventually they are drawn together because they both feel "different", share a love of imagination, and come to respect and support each other's unique talents. As viewers we sense that Jesse and Leslie are special, eager, bright-eyed, and a bit beyond their years in the way smart kids can be.
Soon, the two friends are doing everything together. As a means of escape they spend their days after school out back in a deep patch of woods near their houses, reachable only by a rope swing over a creek. To combat boredom and rise above their depressing surroundings, Leslie creates an imaginary kingdom called Terabithia where they rule as queen and king. This land is filled with magical creatures, a Dark Lord, ferocious monsters, goblins, and mythical beings. There are occasional battles with the forces of evil. The girl shakes up Jesse's little world by showing him that dreaming is OK. In magical Terabithia tree houses become fortresses, trees become giant trolls, and squirrels are vicious man-eaters. From the top of a tree they can see a beautiful waterfall and endless snow-capped fantasy mountains. In this marvelous fantasy kingdom Leslie tells her stories and Jesse is free to draw as much as he likes. When they're in their mythical land, the world behind them fades away, they can relish each other's company, and enjoy the adventures they script along the way.
The complexion of their real world brightens. They take revenge on the mean kids who taunt them at school, and eventually find a way to befriend one of them. Leslie's parents finish writing their book and pay more attention to her. A music teacher, Ms. Edmonds, discovers Jesse's artistic ability and helps him to nurture it. "Don't let those other kids stand in your way," she says to the boy. For the first time, Jesse dares to feel good about himself.
On one day, an ugly reality intrudes upon their idyllic world. Suddenly, Jesse plunges into the most difficult experience of his young life as he is forced to deal with Leslie's tragic death. He isolates and displays hostility because he feels guilty after he learns that his friend drowned in the turbulent creek trying to swing over it while he visited an art museum with Ms. Edmonds. The ten-year-old goes through a painful process of deep grief, loss of innocence, and eventually renewal. His relationships with his dad, with May Belle, and even with Mrs. Meyers are profoundly transformed in this process. After a touching good-bye ritual, Jesse's grieving soul heals, he builds a wooden bridge over the creek, and guides his little sister as a princess into his magical kingdom.
My eleven-year-old client, Amber, came to therapy about two months after her friend, Jasmine, had died from an injury as a result of a bicycle accident. Because they lived close to each other and played in the same soccer team, they had recently become best friends and hung out together frequently. After Jasmine's death, Amber spent most of her time in her room listening to music. During our first couple of sessions, Amber refused to talk about her grief.
For our third session, I invited Amber's parents to come with her daughter. The parents seemed supportive and concerned. In order to protect Amber, they avoided talking about her loss. I learned that Amber frequently snaps at her eight-year-old sister, Emily, and that she hates school now. Amber had been an excellent student. Recently her grades started slipping. I first provided some grief education. In a language that was accessible to the girl, I explained that grief is a natural response to loss. Although everybody's journey toward acceptance and healing is different, some of the basic elements usually are shock, emotional upheaval, guilt, hostility, depression, and finally hope and the reaffirmation of life. It is important that each individual's pattern is respected, allowing them to move to each phase at their own pace. I also recommended that they watch Bridge to Terabithia together.
During our subsequent individual session, Amber began to talk about Jasmine. First she told me how much fun they had together. When I asked her whether she could relate to Jesse, the girl started crying and saying that she knows exactly how Jesse feels. She also told me that she hates school now because she feels so different from her classmates. She is not cool or fun to be around any more, because she always feels like crying. Amber let me know that Jesse's story helped her understand that she is not crazy -- just grieving like Jesse. The movie also gave her hope that her feelings will change with time.
In subsequent sessions we discussed how Amber could support her healing process. She decided to write notes to Jasmine whenever she felt like she wanted to tell her something. Soon she started feeling better, spent more time with her friends again, and became increasingly more able to focus on her school work.
Bridge to Terabithia shows Jesse going through the stages of grief. Watching the movie can support grief therapy with a child or adolescent because it helps normalizing the grief process. By sending a drawing of Leslie on a small wooden raft down the creek where she drowned, he says a final good-bye to his friend. Jesse also symbolically builds a "bridge" to a new phase of his life by building a bridge over the creek to Terabithia. In the last scene of the movie, his renewal is shown, when the boy crosses over this bridge with his sister and is able to see an even more spectacular magical kingdom than ever before.
Guidelines and Questions for Children or Adolescents Who Experience Grief
Is there any similarity between what Jesse feels after Leslie's death and how you are feeling right now?
Was he really responsible for Leslie's death? Do you feel guilty for something you are not really responsible for?
What do you think about the people who helped him cope with his loss? Do you have people in your life who are there for you?
What can you do that might help you cope with your loss similarly to what Jesse did when he sent his little raft down the creek?
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses;
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy