Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Rachel Getting Married
Neda Armian, Marc Platt, Jonathan Demme
Cast:Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Anis George, Debra Winger
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2008
Kym, a recovering drug addict and the black sheep of an upper-middle-class family, is given a weekend pass to leave an alcohol and drug rehabilitation program in order to attend her older sister, Rachel's, wedding. After being in and out of rehab for 10 years, Kym is now several months into a treatment that seems to be working. Since she has long ago lost her family's confidence in her recovery, being around them makes her more vulnerable to backsliding.
Kym's family lives in a big old country house in Connecticut that is now filled with family, future in-laws, and friends of the bride and groom. Rachel's doting father, Paul, and his second wife, Carol, attempt to cheerlead the family and wish great happiness for the bride-to-be. But Kym, who is often seen through cigarette smoke, noisily attests, and the apprehensive attitude of their mother, Abby, quietly indicates that this family cannot brush aside its past and move into the future without a hitch. Although all the major characters in this movie have the best intentions, they can't keep from hurting each other.
Kym is like the "Pandora's Box" of Greek mythology: a repository of guilt, destructiveness, and general bad feeling. She anticipates and sometimes provokes the bad vibes emanating toward her from the family and others, especially Rachel's snappish, overprotective best friend, Emma. At the rehearsal dinner, when Kym rises to toast her older sister and rambles with forced good cheer about making amends, the guests go stone-faced. She longs to make things right, even if she doesn't know how.
We learn that Kym had been a child model whose mood swings frequently prompted her anxious dad to rush in and coddle her. Now she is a magnetic figure, drawing Paul's attention away from Rachel and pulling her family's center of gravity toward herself. Everybody both tries to accommodate the younger sister's need for recognition and struggles against it. Because Rachel is at long last fed up with being upstaged, she pulls out a trump card in the midst of a public screaming match that she would ordinarily never win: she announces she is pregnant. As relatives clamor around Rachel, Kym cries, "That's so unfair!"
While Kym is an irritant for the family, she is also a truth detector who can't help evaluating the honesty of others. Having looked ruthlessly within, she can sense when Rachel and Paul are not truthful with her or with each other. Rachel has not told her sister that she is moving to Hawaii and that she has asked Emma, not Kym, to be her maid of honor. When she tries to get to a 12-step meeting, Paul drives her crazy, because he refuses to let her drive his car. He needs to know her whereabouts every minute. Thinking of Kym behind the wheel summons memories of a car accident in which her younger brother had died when she was driving. The family continues to react to Kym as if she were an active addict. She feels constrained by her protective father and flashes into fearsome combat with her mother.
Rachel's adoring fiancé, Sidney, as well as her step mother, Carol, are African-American. Some movie reviewers have praised that in this movie, races and traditions are gathered in a pleasing display of genteel multiculturalism. Viewing this as a naïve projection of a longed-for harmony that does not yet exist, others have criticized that no expressions of prejudice or social unease are displayed by anyone in the film. I believe that racial divisions are not made to disappear, but rather that, even in an imperfect world, on this particular weekend, the wedding is more important. It represents a symbolic as well as an actual union and an intimation of possible perfection in regards to multicultural harmony.
Kym succeeds in gaining inner balance through attending 12-step meetings during this weekend and through the support of a friend who she meets there. The sisters reconnect and express affection after they openly talk and empathize with the other's struggles. Together they feel more capable to deal with the dysfunctions in their family. Eventually, genuine love and good feeling buoys the wedding ceremony.
Positive Psychology is a recent branch of psychology that studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Using this approach, researchers and practitioners have developed Positive Psychotherapy for the clinical setting, to treat psychological problems effectively by building positive resources and buffer against their future reoccurrence.
Because film characters frequently model the development of desired virtues and strengths, Cinema Alchemy lends itself very well to be integrated into Positive Psychotherapy. When clients recognize their inner resources, they are more effective in coping with a crisis.
Films that are useful in this approach can be dark and intense, as they drive home important issues of the struggle of human suffering, and the painful acceptance of reality. Many movies follow the pattern of the mythological Hero's Journey . Despite initial resistance, the hero has to fight and overcome challenges, and experiences an inner transformation in the process.
Elaine, a 38-year-old Chinese stay-at-home mom of a young boy, was referred to me by her psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants for her. She had carried out a pregnancy a couple of years before her son was born, although doctors had told her that her daughter was unlikely to live. The baby lived only for a couple of hours. After giving birth to her son, Elaine had experienced untreated post-partum depression and felt overwhelmed with her childcare duties. Instead, she started drinking at least one bottle of wine every day for several years. Her marriage and her care for her son suffered immensely. She continued to drink after she started taking antidepressants recently, although her psychiatrist advised strongly against it.
We first worked on Elaine's grief and trauma, associated with the loss of her first child, as well as on her resistance to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program. Who would take care of her son if she left for a while? But this was not the only reason for her resistance. Because she felt ashamed, Elaine had put much effort into keeping her excessive drinking a secret from her church community and her family of origin, although her siblings drank too. Rehab was inconceivable, because they might find out about it.
Following a day of drinking an excessive amount of hard liquor besides wine, she felt extremely sick from a hangover. This opened a window for her husband, Bob, and me to convince Elaine to start rehab. She entered a 14-day inpatient program followed by a 14-day part-time outpatient program.
I continued seeing her for weekly sessions as soon as she began the outpatient program. My client expressed pleasant surprise that her husband was capable of managing their household and taking care of their son during her absence. He also joined the recommended meetings for spouses of alcoholics.
Along with all her other mental health providers, I encouraged Elaine to share with her family that she was in rehab. However, she only informed her oldest brother, whose wife was an alcoholic too. Even though he promised to keep her secret from the other family members, he broke his promise at a family reunion a few weeks later. The shock and shame of this unexpected exposure lead to a bout of depression and a temporary relapse. My client expressed doubt whether she was capable of staying sober, given the dysfunction of her family, her many weaknesses, and the bad luck in her life that always made her depressed.
Because Positive Psychotherapy exercises have proven successful for the treatment of depression, I suggested a Cinema Alchemy intervention in combination with Positive Psychotherapy. I asked Elaine to watch Rachel Getting Married and to focus on Rachel's strengths and honesty, as well as on what Rachel and family members did right in the movie.
During our following session, Elaine told me how impressed she was by Rachel's courage, persistence, and determination in spite of her dysfunctional family. Because of her own ethnic background, she loved that a multicultural family was portrayed. The movie and my viewing instructions enabled my client to access these strengths in herself.
Now Elaine was willing to practice several Positive Psychotherapy exercises. She especially liked the exercise: Three Good Things/Blessings: Every evening, right before you go to bed, write down three good things that happened (large or small) and why you think they happened. To introduce this exercise, I told her: "You tend to spend more time thinking about what has gone wrong than what has gone right. Ruminating on what goes wrong may lead to increased depression. Focusing on your positive experiences may increase them. It takes a voluntary effort not to just focus on the negative."
Elaine has not relapsed any more, feels less depressed, and attends AA meetings several times a week. She keeps more distance from her drinking family members and continues to practice positive psychotherapy exercises.
Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions
How did you feel when you observed Rachel's courage, persistence, and determination to be honest, make amends, and stay clean and sober in spite of inner struggles and problems with her family?
Imagine yourself with these strengths.
How would they affect your sense of fulfillment in life?
What positive thoughts and feelings are you experiencing as you imagine this?
Practice one or more Positive Psychotherapy exercises as you focus on developing the above-mentioned strengths (see exercises in: www.zurinstitute.com/positive_psychology_movies_course.html)
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