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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA




Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

28 Days

Director: Betty Thomas
Producer: Jenno Topping
Screenwriter: Susannah Grant
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic West, Diane Ladd, Elizabeth Perkins, Steve Buscemi, Azura Skye, Alan Tudyk, Michael O'Malley
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2000


Gwen Cummings, a New York writer, parties all night with her boyfriend Jasper. She is constantly high on either alcohol or some form of barbiturates. Jasper believes that the meaning of life is to minimize the pain that is in it. This view dictates their lifestyle. After the clubs, the drinks and designer drugs, they try to have sex. But they are hardly able to stay awake long enough. When a candle starts a fire, they extinguish it with champagne.

One Saturday morning begins with a beer as Gwen hurries to her sister Lily's wedding. "Gwen, you make it impossible to love you," says Lily when Gwen arrives late and drunk. At the reception, she drinks even more and delivers an insulting toast. Gwen collapses into the wedding cake while dancing. She takes the bridal limousine to go buy another cake in her underwear and drives it onto someone's suburban front porch.

A judge gives Gwen a choice between prison and a rehabilitation center. Eventually and grudgingly she chooses Serenity Glen, a rehab center for the mind, body, and spirit. All she knows when she enters treatment is that she wants out. As far as she’s concerned, there’s no way she would stay at a 28 day drug rehabilitation facility like the one she’s in without ruffling a few feathers. Because Gwen doesn't believe she has a problem, she tries to find a way to beat the system. With an attitude of superiority over the other patients, she resists taking part in the treatment programs.

The other patients appear to make desperate attempts to overcome their problems. They include Daniel, a doctor who pumped his own stomach to control his drinking and gave himself an emergency tracheotomy when the hose got stuck in his throat, Eddie Boone, a prominent baseball star with a drug and a sex addiction, and Gerhardt, an angry and critical German dancer. The cocaine-addicted Andrea, Gwen's 17-year-old roommate, dies on their bathroom floor from an overdose when she learns about her upcoming discharge date.

Gwen's counselor, Cornell Shaw, is amused when she says exactly the wrong things to him before discovering his role at the center. He patiently gives her enough rope to "hang herself". When she realizes that she is not able to just stop drinking any time she wants, he points her in the right direction.

Jasper represents temptation. At his visits on weekends, he brings along concealed booze and drugs. But after Gwen experiences serious withdrawal symptoms, she throws the bottle of contraband pills out of a high-story window. Soon she regrets this impulse and sprains an ankle while desperately climbing to retrieve the bottle. When other patients in a therapy group challenge Gwen, she realizes that she does have a serious problem that requires help. Gradually, she opens up and wins the love and admiration of her fellow patients.

During therapy with her sister, Gwen begins to understand the link between her past behavior and the abuse both had suffered as children. Their mother, who believed that life was about "fun", raised her children in the same excesses that Gwen found herself in later. Her mom had died from alcoholism when the sisters were young children.

After a fight with Jasper on one of his visits, Gwen and Eddie Boone begin a tentative and unstated courtship. They feel as if they were in a lifeboat in which they have only each other to cling to. They are both struggling to let go of a self-centered and irresponsible way of life. By emphasizing the foibles and vulnerabilities of these characters, the movie draws the viewer into their valiant efforts to change their behavior and become new people. Eventually, Gwen leaves both men and reconciles with her sister.

Cinema Alchemy

The 21-year-old high college student, Lindsey, came to see me because her best friend urged her to start therapy. About one year ago, Lindsey became involved with Daniel. He has been verbally abusive with her, especially under the influence of alcohol. My client felt very attached to him although he refused to address his anger problem. Daniel was her first serious boyfriend. She did not want to confront him about his demeaning attacks because he always asked for forgiveness after he calmed down from an outburst of rage. Then she always gained hope that things will improve. Besides, she feared that she might agitate Daniel even more if she confronted him.

In order to please her boyfriend, Lindsey joined him during his alcohol binges. After a while, she started drinking alone at home when she was upset about their relationship and felt increasingly anxious. Her ability to focus and her grades at college suffered significantly.

During our initial sessions, I taught my client about the cyclical pattern of Daniel's abusive behavior. This reminded her of her alcoholic mother's abuse when she was a child. Lindsey told me that she held on to the relationship with Daniel because she was afraid that she might get even more anxious if she left him. When I addressed her drinking, she claimed that she was able to quit any time she wanted.

Eventually, Lindsey admitted that she was not able to stop drinking. Although she understood that her problem was more serious than she had originally thought, my client refused to join a recovery support group because this seemed foreign and intimidating to her.

Lindsey was open to watching 28 Days. She first responded to the movie with shock. Seeing thepossible long-term consequences of drinking alcohol scared her. Gwen appeared like a mirror to my client that she did not want to look at. But she was willing to follow my suggestion and watch the movie again. I asked her to pay close attention to Gwen's transformation this time. Following this second viewing, the movie became a catalyst for Lindsey's psychological development. Watching how Gwen breaks through her denial, Lindsey was able to do the same. The group interactions in the movie made recovery support groups seem less intimidating to her, and she decided to join one.

I explained to Lindsey that her mom's abuse created a psychological imprint, which I call an undesired inner movie . The plots of our inner movies tell us stories about our world and ourselves that are based on early life experiences. We tend to recreate them in our real world unconsciously in order to heal our childhood wounds or master a problem that we were not able to overcome as a child. Her mom's modeling of drinking behavior became another early imprint.

When she observed Gwen's transformation, my client gained the courage to start her recovery by "copying" the character's healing experience into her own "inner movie screen" and at the same time "erased" her old, undesired inner movie . Eventually she felt strong enough to confront her boyfriend about his abusive behavior. His continued lack of receptivity started to make her angry. It did not take very long until Lindsey broke up with Daniel. As we continued to work on her alcohol dependency, we focused also on mourning her relationship and on getting back on track with her college aspirations. Lindsey was now able to quit drinking.

Theoretical Contemplation

28 Days has been criticized for taking the easy way out by showing only the excesses of indulging in alcohol and drugs and trivializing how addiction can be overcome. I found this movie helpful for several of my clients though, because it shows characters who work through their denial, have greater insight, and develop skills to deal with their addiction through the process of treatment. It also shows the risk addicts take to get alcohol and drugs, the craving for candy and cigarettes, as well as serious physical withdrawal symptoms. The movie also demonstrates that not everything turns out well for everybody, but that treatment at its best can be a life-changing experience. Romance between recovering addicts is strongly discouraged, although it surfaces in this movie as well as in real-life treatment centers.

One form of The Prescriptive Way of Cinema Alchemy teaches clients "by proxy" how not to do something or not to behave because they see the negative consequences of a character's action. Projecting a childhood "movie" on today's reality, my client Lindsey had "self-medicated" by drinking alcohol instead of freeing herself from an abusive situation. Reflecting on this movie metaphor and watching 28 Days in conjunction with our subsequent exploration lead to therapeutic success.   

Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Clients who struggle with Addiction

• Did you see one or several characters experience consequences of their addictive behavior that you want to avoid in your life?

•  Did a character develop certain strengths or other capacities that helped him or her overcome the addiction?

•  Imagine yourself with the mature and strong aspects of this character's behavior and personality.

•  Imagine yourself using these qualities or capacities in your life. How would your life change?


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