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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA




Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Grand Canyon

Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Producers: Michael Grillo, Lawrence Kasdan, Charles Okun
Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan
Cast: Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Steve Martin, Mary McDonnell, Mary-Louise Parker, Alfre Woodard, Jeremy Sisto, Tina Lifford, Patrick Malone, Randle Mell, Sarah Trigger
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1991


A white and wealthy accountant, Mack, is stranded in the ghetto when his car breaks down. A black gang sets upon him. But at the last minute, Simon, a black tow-truck driver, arrives to rescue him. This takes place in a Los Angeles that is painted as ominous and threatening, an alienating landscape where rich people pile up bulwarks of money and distance to protect them from the dangers of poverty and despair. His brush with death or serious injury causes the otherwise happy Mack to reexamine his values. He believes that he has been granted a new life, and he wants to lead it a little differently this time. Mack decides to repay Simon's kindness by getting involved in his life, helping him locate a better apartment, and setting him up on a blind date. Thus begins an unlikely friendship between these two men, which serves as the centerpiece in a web of interconnected stories, many of which illustrate the possibilities when people allow themselves to go beyond society's barriers.

Simon is a divorced, hardworking man. He is a caring soul who keeps in constant touch with his deaf daughter in Washington, D.C. and looks after his sister, who lives in a violence-ridden ghetto. Her teenage son is convinced that he will not live to be twenty-five.

At the same time as the friendship develops between Mack and Simon, Mack's wife, Claire, has an extraordinary experience that opens her heart too. Their son is about to leave for college, and as the empty nest looms, a miracle falls into her life: She hears crying in the bushes along her daily jogging route and finds an abandoned baby. She brings it home, falls in love with it, and wants to keep the infant. Following the advice of her friends and family, she hesitantly lets go of this dream.  

Mack's best friend Davis is a producer of violent movies. Early in Grand Canyon , he complains because an editor has left out the "money shot" (a bus driver graphically shot in the head) in one of his movies. Then a mugger shoots Davis in the leg. When he feels the pain, he has a strong awakening, vowing to not make any more violent movies. After his recovery, however, Davis goes back to his old ways.

Grand Canyon is a movie about daily life in a big American city and about several characters who would not, in the ordinary course of events , meet one another. This film is also about breaking down the barriers that society erects between people.

Theoretical contemplations

Usually we identify with film characters when we recognize ourselves in them. Whatever we like or dislike in a character is usually what we like or dislike in ourselves. In the therapeutic hour, this understanding can be of great assistance with our efforts to help clients expand positive qualities and to help them work with perceived or real shortcomings which they are consciously aware of.

Clients may also project their disowned positive qualities onto film characters, as they admire or idealize them. Admiring the actions may point to our clients' qualities that are hidden from their full awareness. Gaining recognition of these positive traits in this indirect way helps clients to own these previously hidden qualities.

If clients strongly dislike certain movie characters or their behavior, we need to consider that they might project their own not fully conscious shortcomings onto the characters. To the clients, the despised characters seem different from how they perceive themselves. Our clients develop toward more wholeness and authenticity as they become conscious of the disowned "shadow" self that they project onto the characters or their behavior.

Cinema Alchemy

Evelyn was a member of my Cinema Alchemy group. After the group watched Grand Canyon between our weekly meetings , I explained to them what we can learn about ourselves through developing awareness of our projections.

Evelyn liked Mack. Of all the characters, she saw herself most in him. She perceived Mack as grateful and caring. He reminded her of the fact that she also cares a lot for others and their well-being. When she shared these reflections with the group, the other group members agreed with Evelyn's perspective.

This process helped her appreciate herself more fully for her friendliness, openheartedness, ability to commit, and so on. It became obvious to everyone that this sharing process helped her strengthen these positive qualities.

Evelyn could also relate to Claire's thinking and behavior. She identified with the naïveté that she saw in Claire concerning the baby.   But she often hates herself for being such a dreamer and believes that she should be more "down to earth." When she shared this analysis with the group, several group members responded with surprise. They didn't see Evelyn as not in touch with reality. They saw her as idealistic but in a positive way and even admired her for it. When she heard this, Evelyn remembered that some friends had given her similar feedback. She tended to forget those kinds of responses.

Following my guidance, Evelyn also remembered that she had been very dreamy as a child and received frequent criticism for it from her mother at the time. In the meantime, she had become significantly more balanced. Now it all made sense to her. Evelyn understood that she had held on to a negative view of herself ( perceived shortcoming) that no longer applied. This process encouraged her to start working on her "inner critic".

Evelyn saw courage in Simon, which at first she could not recognize in herself. I encouraged her to remember a time -- even if it were long ago or under unusual circumstances -- when she felt courageous. Now she remembered that, many years ago, she had been quite courageous when she confronted her older brother because he had lied to her. He was much bigger than Evelyn. She was afraid of him but confronted him anyway because it seemed the right thing to do.

Now Evelyn understood that her courage had been hidden from her awareness and that she had projected this positive quality onto Simon. In subsequent sessions she reported that her altered self-image helped her to be more assertive.  

Evelyn disliked the character Davis in Grand Canyon very much because she saw him as selfish, rude, heartless, ruthless, and abusing his power. She believed that she is very different from Davis. Her strong negative reaction made me wonder whether the Davis character might indirectly confront Evelyn with disowned parts of herself. Consequently I asked her how aggression was handled in her family of origin. She remembered that, most of the time, everyone was nice to everyone else. When Evelyn tried to express disagreement, her mom told her, "Do not say anything if you cannot say something nice."

After some probing, Evelyn told the group that although she has very good relationships with her colleagues and her boss at work, she is not completely happy there. Pushier colleagues, who have also taken more initiative in certain projects, have been promoted instead of her. This puzzles her because she always completes her tasks diligently.

At first it was hard for Evelyn to allow for the possibility that some of the characteristics she saw in Davis could be part of her disowned and repressed self. But reflecting on her family history helped her to open up to this possibility. Now Evelyn started to consider that she might have repressed her anger and aggression. She also surmised that her assertiveness, strength, and creativity might have also ended up in her "shadow" self. This awareness supported her process toward wholeness.

Guidelines for Suggestions and Questions for Clients

•  Have you seen a character that you especially liked and with whom you especially identified?

•  Has there been a different character in which you saw yourself, but disliked overall?

•  Look also for a character that strikes you as being different from yourself but whom you liked or admired.

•  Did you recognize a character you could not identify with, or could only identify with very little and about whom you had negative feelings, perhaps because of their demeanor, expressions, or actions?

These questions can be asked after clients watched a specific movie with multiple characters or while reflecting on several films.


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