Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
The Secret Lives of Dentists
Director: Alan Rudolph
Producers: Campbell Scott, George VanBuskirk
Screenwriter: Craig Lucas
Stars: Campbell Scott, Robin Tunney, Denis Leary, Hope Davis, Adele DMan
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2003
Based on a novella from Jane Smileys book The Age
of Grief, this movie tells the story about an
apparently happy family. But we learn fast that there
is more going on than what meets the eye. David and
his wife Dana are successful dentists who work in the
same office. They have been married for ten
years. David is the primary parent for their three
daughters. He senses that his wife has grown more
distant but he doesn't know what to do about it. He
suspects that Dana may be having an affair with the
musical director of the amateur opera troupe she sings
in. Speaking a bit too loud to her, one can sense
David studying her for evidence of sin. His eyes study
her legs and the hem of her skirt, wondering what her
sexual needs might be.
Eventually David secretly happens upon his wife and
the director having an intimate moment. He is furious
with her for betraying him but unwilling to confront her
with what he knows, lest she leave him. To keep his
family together, he demonstrates the well-meaning victim
of circumstance who was wronged. As a metaphor for his
inner world and analogy for his view of relationships he
admires the resilience of teeth above all things: "Only
life can kill teeth, because once you die, your teeth go
right on living".
At the same time his more alive inner world appears
in the form of David's destructive shadow self. He sinks
into a fantasy, which takes the form of the ghost-like
Slater, an angered patient. David had filled a cavity of
the real person, Slater, only to be confronted at the
community opera by him, as he holds up a filling that
had dropped out and informs the audience that David is a
lousy dentist. Now Slater becomes a manifestation of
David's repressed emotions by entering his consciousness
as an alter ego who keeps pushing him to act out his
darkest thoughts. He encourages David to ditch the wife,
go on the road, chuck it all, and leave the kids. When
his daughters act out, he tells David, "These kids ought
to be struck. May I hit them?" David has to think for a
moment before he says no.
When his wife tries to talk to David he is
unavailable. She says she wishes they were closer: "You
scare me a little." At one point Dana tells him she is
experiencing their marriage as getting smaller and
David's uptightness and the unhealthy dynamics between
them send waves of tension throughout the household. A
physician implies that their oldest daughter's stomach
problems are related to arguments the parents are having
in front of the children. The youngest daughter wants
nothing but her daddy, even striking the mother when
placed in her arms.
And then, a stomach virus mimics the sick
relationship between the parties. David throws up first
before the illness passes from one family member to the
next, over the course of five wearying, nauseous days.
He cares for the family while coming apart inside. The
physical purging and weakness seems to induce a process
of emotional cleansing as well as increased
vulnerability. As David and Dana let go of their
defensive postures the whole family discovers a new
potential for emotional intimacy. The couple stops
taking each other for granted.
I noticed that using systems-oriented therapy and
communication training in combination with watching
films that show family dynamics helps clients to:
• understand their problem as a
function of being part of a larger system
• identify by comparison how they
had or had not satisfactorily adjusted in their
• retrieve or learn necessary
attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, etc.
• communicate unfamiliar concepts
to their partners through films that introduce readily
• meaningfully connect or
reconnect through improved communication
When one family member resists therapy, encouraging
them to watch a movie where a characters struggles with
similar issues often helps the resisting client to open
up because they are less intimidated by the therapeutic
process and less afraid of getting blamed.
A married couple in their thirties, Christine and
Sean, came in telling me that they were close to getting
divorced. Since the couple had gotten married a year ago
they had reached an impasse in their relationship. They
lived with Christine's eight year-old son, Mathew, whose
grades at school have been declining for a while.
Mathew's biological father was not in the picture.
Sean complained that Christine is not affectionate
any more and rarely wants to have sex. He called her
cold and indifferent and believed that their
communication was compromised because for Christine,
English was a second language.
Christine thought that her language skills were
adequate. She had given up trying to explain to her
husband that she doesn't feel attracted to him when she
feels taken for granted because he vegges out in front
of the TV instead of engaging with her or helping with
After several sessions into our work, when they were
particularly hard to move out of their blaming game, I
ask them to watch The Secret Lives of Dentists and gave
them the handout that is mentioned below.
The couple came back shocked because they recognized
the effect that their tension might have on Mathew. Both
identified with David and Dana in different ways.
Suddenly our work started to move forward again. The
film served them as a metaphor that represented the
feelings they couldn't put into words before without
attacking the other person.
Guidelines for working with couples
Handout given before the movie:
Keep the following questions in mind while you watch:
• What parts of the movie touch you m
• What character do you most identify with and when
• How does Dana and David's relationship affect their children?
• How could they improve their communication?
• What helped them improve their relationship?
Questions after the movie:
• How does Dana and David's relationship compare to yours?
• What can you learn from them?
• What can you do better?
• The fact that you were touched by
parts of the movie might indicate that there is a message
that guides you toward healing and wholeness for yourself
and your family. What is this message?
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