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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

by Birgit Wolz Ph.D.

In America

Director: Jim Sheridan
Producers: Arthur Lappin, Jim Sheridan
Screenwriters: Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan
Stars: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine, Djimon Hounsou, Emma Bolger, Sarah Bolger
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2003


In America offers a unique and moving look at a family’s devastating grief over the accidental death of a son and brother, who also had a brain tumor. Stephanie Ericsson wrote: ”Grief … is the ashes from which the phoenix rises. … Grief will make a new person out of you, if it doesn’t kill you in the making.” Although In America demonstrates how intense, chaotic, contradictory, and heart-wrenching emotions can be when we are grieving, it also reveals that this nightmarish process can become transformative.

The movie also tells Jim Sherdian’s semi-autobiographical story about the so-called “immigrant experience” that is as much about family dynamics as about the struggle to survive in unfamiliar surroundings. The story starts with the Irish family sneaking across the Canadian border into the US as illegal immigrants.

Johnny, the young father, wants to be an actor. Since the death of his son, he has suppressed his emotions, which threatens his career. The mother, Sarah, is an exhausted and deeply grief-struck woman who swings back and forth between depression and moments of elation while she tries to fulfill her obligations as a mother, wife, and breadwinner. In spite of their best efforts, the marriage is in danger of disintegration. Their eleven-year-old daughter, Christy, shoots videos of everything with her low-cost camcorder and serves as a voiceover narrator of the story, writing letters to her diseased brother, Frankie. Christy’s gregarious younger sister, Ariel, who almost always has a smile in her face, demonstrates the soulfulness of children whose wonder and imagination can carry them through an ocean of difficulties.

It’s presumed that the family’s move to America was meant as an escape from the tragedy back in Ireland; yet, even with the change in scenery, both parents struggle with overwhelming feelings of guilt. Sarah urges her husband to use his talents as an actor for the kids’ sake: ”Make believe you’re happy!” But Christy breaks through the denial as a sounding board and unforgiving judge: “I’ve been carrying this family on my back for over a year.” Eventually, looking for a means to end the pain, Sarah gets pregnant. But their challenges continue when the doctor tells them that there could be life-threatening complications with the birth.

The family lives in a New York City tenement building, where they are confronted with racism and drug addiction. There is one door, which has the words KEEP AWAY painted on in big orange letters. Here lives, as called by the girls, “a man who screams” because his anguish sometimes echoes up the stairs. The girls’ innocence and implicit faith in others allows them to approach this gentle giant, Mateo, without fear, rather than to cower away from him like other tenants. Later, when he joins them for dinner, Ariel says “You’re magic.” And she is right with her intuitive response.

Everything shifts when Mateo and Johnny face each other in anger and unexpected insights are triggered. Mateo continues to be the catalyst for emotional changes in the family and for different ways of seeing. Especially in the final episode the movie boosts the human spirit and suggests that small miracles do exist.

Cinema Alchemy

Movies like In America, used as an adjunct to grief therapy, can serve as a catalyst for suppressed emotions. Sometimes tears flow over a sentimental film but not in real life. Emotional release can lift clients’ spirits for a while. Energy that was drained by depression can reemerge, at least temporarily. With therapeutic guidance this “break” frequently allows clients to open up to the grieving process or explore the issues that have inhibited healthy mourning. They may also feel less alone in their pain. Film characters often serve as either negative or positive models for the grieving process. Their story can also help clients recognize the transformational potential in grief.

My 40 year old client, Kevin, had lost his sickly younger sister, Kate, to heart failure when they were children. Because he feared that peers would make fun of him, he never cried. Although his parents had told him that Kate’s death was not his fault because she suffered from an incurable heart condition, Kevin felt responsible. He believed: “I shouldn’t have encouraged her to play with me the day before she died”. Since then, every year around the anniversary of her death Kevin felt depressed. When he suspected that there might be some unresolved grief, he entered therapy.

Our work progressed well. However, the most significant breakthrough happened after Kevin watched In America. As he recognized the family’s pain in the film, tears started flowing for the first time. In our next session he told me that these were his “un-cried” tears over the loss of little Kate. More grief surfaced during the following weeks. First Kevin was afraid that “something must be wrong with me that I felt so sad”. With the help of some guiding questions (see below) Kevin started to accept his mourning as a healing process and felt more normal. He experienced the movie characters like a support group. Subsequently we worked with his guilt going back and forth between his inner experience and observing the movie characters. Pretty soon Kevin found peace around his loss and even felt inspired to volunteer in a children’s hospital.Guidelines for work with clients

Guidelines for Questions

Before the movie:

• If the movie elicits emotions, let yourself feel them and cry as much as you like.
Ask clients to notice …
• how Johnny’s and Sarah’s negative, self-defeating beliefs and their resistance to grief slowly change
• how they develop a new sense of self, compassion, and purpose when they finally give themselves permission to grieve
• the characters take small acts of courage in spite of fear
• their determination and endurance helps them become stronger.

After the movie:

• How do you feel about the character’s experience of grief and guilt in relation to your own?
• What did you see in the film that reminds you of your own inner and outer resources?
• Have you discovered transformational gifts of grief after experiencing a loss before, similar to the family in the movie?


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