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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Director: Mike Mills
Producers: Miranda de Pencier, Lars Knudsen, Leslie Urdang, Jay Van Hoy, Dean Vanech
Screenplay: Mike Mills
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent , Goran Visnjic , Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)
Year of Release: 2011 (the film premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival)


Beginners is based on the true-life-story of director Mike Mills, and his father's coming out at the age of 75, five years before his death.

The movie starts when Oliver's father Hal has just passed away. Oliver, the protagonist, is a Los Angeles graphic designer. The non-linear plot goes back and forth in time from his point of view. During Oliver's young life, the family consists of the absent father and husband, Hal, his melancholic wife, Georgia, and the introvert boy that spends quite some time taking care of his mother.

Moving forward in time again, six months after Georgia's death and after 44 years of marriage, the 75-year-old retired dad tells his son that he is gay. This is only a revelation for Oliver, as his parents had always known. Hal shares with his son how difficult the times for homosexuals were in the 50s: an analyst told him his condition can be cured and his wife said: "I will fix it".

Oliver's mother appeared to have never been truly happy and seemed to have lived an embittered life throughout her marriage with her gay husband. Her perseverance in trying to fix Hal's "illness" and his lack of courage in taking control of his own life sooner cost both of them decades of their lives.

For many years, Hal tried to fit within a society that did not accept his sexual orientation. Therefore he wants his son to understand that he, as a heterosexual, has it so much easier than Hal did. But Oliver does not think that life is that simple for him either. In fact, he mostly appears with a subdued mood that he expresses by saying: "Our good fortune allowed us to feel the sadness our parents never had time for."

Hal announces that he is making a fresh start in regards to his love life. He wants to embrace his homosexuality freely and unabashedly by beginning a relationship with Andy, who is about Oliver's age.

Not long after this announcement, in a tragic twist of events, Hal learns that he has lung cancer. Cheering him up and taking care of him, Andy shows his love for the old man with a depth that almost shames Oliver. His father remains a liberated man. He is not devoid of flaws, but he is determined to live his life fully, even when, or possibly because, he is confronted with the inescapability of his death.

Suddenly, Hal becomes a real presence in Oliver's life and vice versa. In one scene, Oliver points out lovingly: "there is no stage 5 dad!" Stage 4 means in his eyes that Hal has been strong enough to go through three previous stages of a terminal illness, and that is no little consolation. Hal's final months are full of kindness, tenderness, and the small joys of life. The son reads a book to his father. The young lover kisses repeatedly and affectionately his much older and dying partner. They have a party among friends and a shopping spree in a bookstore.

His father's death is a great loss for Oliver. At the same time, the tragic end of Hal's life only a few years after he found a way to happiness that he had never thought possible, forces Oliver to look at life with a fresh, new perspective. Am I being true to myself? Is there anything I need to do differently?

Although Oliver is an introvert artist, he has gained some fame with his work. Now everyone wants him to do the same thing over and over again. He is trapped in his past and does not know how to move forward. The memories of his parents inspire Oliver to start a new project, a graphic representation of the history of sadness. But he is disappointed that neither his clients nor his partners seem too keen on it.

Oliver has never committed to a romantic relationship. In fact, he always broke away from his girlfriends when they got too serious. Still suffering from grief, he meets Anna when he attends a costume party dressed as Sigmund Freud. He stations himself next to a sofa and acquires her as a patient. Anna cannot talk because of laryngitis. Therefore she communicates by scribbling notes on a little notepad. Her silence, however, sounds like the echo of Oliver's consciousness. The young woman seems to know what he thinks and feels. "Why," she writes, "did you come to a party when you were so sad?"

Meanwhile, Anna also has family issues. When she finally starts speaking, it becomes obvious that they seem to like each other very much. Both want to be happier. But because of their undermined faith in long-lasting romantic love, they are initially unsure where to go from there.

The final years of his dad's life had been a great lesson for Oliver. He wants to take a risk, follow his heart, and make a commitment. An unfortunate misunderstanding that resulted from the couples' fear of intimacy leads to a temporary separation. But eventually they dare a new beginning, open up to their love for each other, and learn to trust each other.

Cinema Alchemy

I encouraged the participants of my weekly Cinema Therapy process group to suggest movies that touched them on a deep level. Sarah, a 30-year-old group member, told us that she was intensely moved by certain scenes in Beginners . She had just watched this film in a theater. Subsequently everybody else watched this film before our next meeting.

Sarah had joined the group because she felt awkward in social situations, and because she felt fearful when she met a man who was interested in her. She told the group that she was afraid that men fall for her because she would have to disappoint them. Mostly this concern prevented her from returning their affection. After some failed relationships, she had stopped dating even though she dreamt of having a family some day.

Sarah's parents got divorced after a year of bitter fighting about her dad's affairs when she was 10.   Since that time, she believed that her father had destroyed the family and resented him for it. Therefore Sarah had broken off contact with him for several years. As a young child, she had enjoyed being a daddy's girl. Recently, she started missing the relationship with him and feared that he might die before they are able to reconnect and reconcile.

Sarah was well liked in the group. Through the positive feedback she received over time, she started to become increasingly more comfortable in the group and began to share more. Sarah also told us that she began to feel less cautious in social situations because the group had helped her feel less afraid of rejection.

After everybody saw Beginners , another group member asked Sarah why she had suggested the movie and which part touched her most. She explained to us that almost all interactions between father and son affected her deeply. She liked that Hal's new beginning as a gay man and his fight with cancer gives a second chance to father and son to build anew their relationship. She was touched when she saw that Oliver's reflection on his father's life, with its joys and failures, makes him questions the choices he has made thus far. "He brakes through his old patterns and risks committing to the person he loved," she said.

I asked Sarah how this relates to her own life. She responded spontaneously that the movie made her wonder whether she might be ready for a new beginning too. Should she initiate closer contact to her dad and start dating again? "The movie reminded me that disappointment is part of life. I don't want to keep avoiding relationships," she said. She smiled when other group members responded with supportive statements.

I asked each participant in which aspect of their life they would benefit from a new beginning. Listening to their responses helped Sarah to become even clearer and more determined to take the risks that she had previously avoided.

Then I encouraged the other group members to share what parts of the movie inspired them. Jim told us that he was touched by the fact that Hal's illness seemed to have given way to the joy of life and love. This had special meaning for him, because he struggled with a chronic illness. With the support of Beginners and the subsequent group interactions, he began to recognize and appreciate how his relationships had deepened since he got sick.

During subsequent sessions, Sarah told us that she had initiated contact with her father, which made him very happy. His joy touched her and made her feel closer to him. This successful experience inspired her to take steps toward dating again.

Theoretical Contemplations

The impact of films as catalysts for psychological processes dovetails well with the therapeutic effects of group dynamics. Group members' reflections about their emotional response to a movie are an added component that enriches group therapy. By understanding and sharing what moves them about certain movie scenes or characters, participants acquire an effective tool to get to know themselves and others. After leaving the group, they are able to continue using what they have learned about self-discovery when watching films.

Guidelines for Facilitators of Cinema Therapy Groups

Depending on time availability and goals for the group, decide whether movies or movie clips are watched during the meeting or members view the films at home.  

Choice of movies for groups in which members watch them at home:

•  Depending on your primary goal for the group (primarily teaching or evoking), decide whether you suggest a film or allow group members to choose the movie for everybody to watch at home. If members make the choice, instruct them to decide on a film that touched or had a special meaning for them. If you as a facilitator decide to make the choice and need guidance, check the film index or cinema therapy books.

•  Make sure movies are available for rent from video stores, order from Netflix , or play in local theaters.

•  Foreign films with subtitles are not recommended because reading can interfere with the multi-sensory experience.

Decide how many meetings you want to spend on processing responses to one specific film.

Help group members avoid getting stuck in critiquing the movie. Instead, help them focus on their process.


Birgit Wolz wrote and co- 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