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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA




Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Good Will Hunting

Director: Gus Van Sant Jr.
Producer: Lawrence Bender
Screenwriters: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck
Cast: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgård

Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997


20-year-old Will Hunting works as a janitor at MIT in Boston. He likes to party and hang around the old neighborhood. His reading consists of downloading the contents of whole libraries into his photographic memory. When he wins a prize for solving a difficult mathematics problem , the young genius attracts the attention and is taken under the wings of professor Lambeau. But Will's life edges towards self-destruction. His reluctance to embrace the opportunities that the professor offers his protégé at MIT is based partly on class and partly on old psychic wounds. After a scrape with the law because of his impulse control problems, he is ordered by the court to see a therapist.

Lambeau tries to find Will counseling by introducing him to three different therapists. One is a well-known author. In their first and only session, his new client makes fake revelations while pretending to cooperate. Soon the therapist starts showing signs of insecurity, and Will asks, "Do you find it hard to hide the fact that you are gay?" The therapist denies it, and Will says," Two seconds ago you were ready to give me a jump." After this provocation, the therapist storms out of his office.

The second therapist tries to hypnotize the young man. He also ends up declining to work with him after the first session because Will demonstrates with sarcasm that he doesn't take hypnosis seriously. Eventually Sean McGuire, Lambeau's former college roommate, now a community college professor, is willing to make another attempt to work with Will Hunting.

During their first session, Will attempts to gain control by asking most of the questions and McGuire allows him to do so. For their second session, McGuire tries to break the ice by taking his still highly resistant and distrustful young client to a park bench on a riverbank. This environment is more conducive than McGuire's book-packed office to convey to Will the difference between real life experiences and book knowledge. Will starts listening and begins to understand that he is hiding behind his knowledge and cockiness because he is too afraid to talk about himself. To support this process, the therapist discloses emotions about his wife's cancer and her death.

In another session, Will states how he wants to make his new romance perfect by keeping his distance. In order to model vulnerability and to convey that imperfections are desired aspects of an emotionally intimate relationship, McGuire says, "My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful idiosyncrasies. She used to fart in her sleep. One night it was so loud, it woke the dog up. She woke up and asked, 'Is that you?' I didn't have the heart to tell her. ... Those are the things I miss the most, wonderful things, the little idiosyncrasies that only I know about. That's what made her my wife." As both laugh, Will looses up and gains more trust in his therapist.

To continue offering Will a sense of what a healthy relationship can look like, McGuire answers many questions about his thoughts, feelings and behavior in his relationship with his wife. He also tells his client that he doesn't have any regrets about having opened up and loved his wife, even though she died. The therapist conveys his love on more than an abstract level when he demonstrates the importance of his marriage by first talking about his strong interest in baseball in a demonstrative fashion and then continuing by saying that he gave up an important game for his wife when they first met.  

McGuire also shares how he was beaten by his alcoholic father to encourage Will to talk about his physical abuse as a child. Using self-disclosure and his client's language, the therapist is able to build and support the therapeutic alliance, to demonstrate emotional risk-taking, to teach how this supports emotional intimacy, and to encourage his client to talk about his childhood abuse. Eventually they successfully work on Will's childhood trauma, and the young man gains the courage to be vulnerable with his girlfriend.

Cinema Alchemy

Josh came to his first session after his grandmother arranged an appointment for him. He lived with her because both his parents had died in an accident several years ago. Josh was a few of months from high school graduation when he was brutally attacked, mugged, and severely beaten in his face on his way home one night. In order to prevent disfigurement, he had to undergo complicated but successful surgery. After the attack, he believed that his girlfriend, Lena, only stayed because of pity for him. Therefore he considered breaking up with her now. Although he had been an excellent student before the mugging, Josh lost his motivation to do any homework for school or to apply to colleges. He just wanted to sleep or play video games all the time.

My further inquiry led me to the conclusion that my client displayed several symptoms of PTSD and depression. He first appeared friendly and open, but when I suggested helping him work on recovering from his severe traumas, he seemed to close down. Josh believed that nothing could help him. Friends had told him about their disappointing experiences with therapy. He let me know that he would never consider taking antidepressants, and that he only came to see me because he wanted to appease his Granny. In fact, my young client was not sure whether he wanted to continue therapy.

I encouraged him to come for at least one more session. In preparation for this second session, I asked him to watch Good Will Hunting , and to imagine how he would feel in this character's situation in regards to therapy and his girlfriend. I could see that Josh was surprised and intrigued by my suggestion.

When he came back, he said that he really liked how Will "kicked ass" when he saw the first two therapists. Josh continued, "I wished I had done that with the counselor who I saw after my parents died. Seeing him was such a waste of time. But Will's third counselor was cool and he seemed to know how to help him. But does it always take that long to get better?" "Sometimes it does", I responded.

Good Will Hunting gave Josh hope. "If a tough guy like Will can make his life work better after going to therapy for a while, it might be worth trying", he said. My client recognized that Will Hunting was worried about not being accepted by his girlfriend. Josh did not want to be such a coward and started to consider that it might be better to not break up with Lena at this point.

Viewing the movie at home and processing his experience in session helped Josh opening up to the therapeutic process. He came back for trauma work until he recovered from his PTSD and his depression lifted. Today he is a successful college student.

Theoretical Contemplation

Many adults benefit from talking about problems, thoughts, dreams, or emotions in psychotherapy. They usually have learned to verbalize complex and contradictory feelings and reactions. However, many adolescents find it more difficult or annoying to express such feelings. By referencing film characters and familiar dramatic vignettes, young clients may reveal their own internal processes while initially having the opportunity to keep a necessary emotional distance from stressful or frightening topics.

Adolescents' responses to movies often help therapists understand their personalities, concerns, interests or their current problems. Therefore, Cinema Alchemy can become a tool for assessment. In addition to the standard biographical questioning, young clients may be asked to name films they liked and explain what they liked about these movies.

Films can also be used to get to the bottom of difficult issues. They provide a common ground for discussions about problems related to family, friendship, school, anxiety, self-esteem, love, and more. Issues can be addressed in relation to an outside element -- the film. Discussing the topic using the objective plot characters in the film may diffuse some tension created by discussing the sensitive topics on a directly personal level.

Movies present adolescents with best and worst case scenarios and show different characters getting in and out of various problems and circumstances. Seeing how an individual in a movie handles a situation gives them ideas of how to deal with a problem in their own lives.

Guidelines for Suggestions and Questions for Adolescents

•  How do you feel about Will's resistance to therapy and about his reluctance to open up emotionally to his girlfriend?

•  Did Will develop certain strengths or capacities that you would like to gain as well?

•  Imagine yourself with these strengths or capacities.

•  How would your life look like if you had these qualities or capacities?

•  What did you see in the film that reminds you of your own inner and outer resources?


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