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Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Last Chance Harvey

Director: Joel Hopkins
Producer: Frank Yablans
Screenwriter: Joel Hopkins
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, James Brolin, Liane Balaban, Kathy Baker, Richard Schiff
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2008


The frustrated New Yorker, Harvey Shine, is a serious musician at heart, but has compromised his creative ambitions. After he failed as a jazz pianist, he found some success writing jingles for TV ads. But Harvey is now on the verge of losing his job. Warned by his boss that he has just one more chance to deliver, he flies to London for a weekend to attend his daughter Susan's wedding. He promises to be back on Monday morning to make an important meeting. Harvey knows that this is the absolute worst time to have to take a trip out of the country.

Father and daughter have a strained relationship. She is marrying into a family that seems to have a greater affinity for his ex-wife's new husband than himself. Harvey feels like the odd man out at the rehearsal dinner. W hen he tells Susan that he can not stay for the wedding reception because of work, she informs him that she has chosen to have her stepfather walk her down the aisle. Harvey tries to hide his devastation, attends the ceremony, and then attempts to return to New York. But he misses his plane at Heathrow Airport. When he calls his boss to explain, he gets fired on the spot.

In a parallel story, Kate is introduced to the viewer as a sensitive, single, 40-something airport interviewer for the British Office of National Statistics. She is always "on the go", rushing to work, taking care of her lonely and smothering mother, attending literature courses, and, ultimately, never slowing down long enough to allow herself to feel her vulnerability. Her mom is a recent cancer survivor, who is convinced that her new neighbor is a likely serial killer. She is obsessed with Kate's virtually non-existent love life and calls her constantly.

Sometimes Kate is pushed into dates by co-workers who worry about her. But she is sick of being disappointed and would rather stick with a good book and give love a pass. We watch her making clumsy attempts at dating and getting ignored on a particularly humiliating blind date.  

Harvey had been rude to Kate when they met briefly at his arrival at Heathrow where she tried to snare deplaned passengers with a weary smile, a clipboard, and a questionnaire. Later they almost meet again when he exits a cab that she climbs into.

Now both are deep in misery and their parallel lives finally converge. Frustrated with their circumstances, they find themselves the only two people in an airport bar. Harvey tries to drown his sorrows in alcohol, recognizes Kate, apologizes, and, out of desperation, tries to start a conversation. She initially resists, but eventually a spark ignites amid several glasses of booze and teasing chatter. They have lunch together and consequently set off on a peripatetic flirtation that takes them on a stroll alongside the river Thames. Kate feels touched by Harvey, who finds himself energized by her intelligence and compassion.

As they grow closer, Harvey starts sharing with Kate why his relationship with his daughter failed. She responds by telling him that he must attend Susan's wedding reception. Harvey agrees, but only if she'll come with him. After buying Kate a dress, at the reception he delivers a speech about love and forgiveness. Harvey redeems himself with his daughter and Kate begins to fall for him.

After the reception, they walk and talk until sunrise and then make a date to meet again at noon. But Harvey is not able to show up because he collapses as a result of his arrhythmia and is taken to a hospital. But he is determined to find Kate.

In the last scene of the movie, Harvey apologizes to Kate, and says, " Kate, I want this. I want you". She responds: "It's pathetic. I expected you not to show, for God's sake. I think I even wanted you not to be there. It's easier that way. ... I'm not going to do it because it will hurt. Not right now, maybe, but soon - there will be an 'it's not quite working' or an 'I need some space' or whatever it is and it'll end and it'll hurt. ... I think it's actually easier for me to be disappointed. I think I'm actually angry at you for trying to take that away."

After Harvey gives Kate some space, they both display their vulnerability. He also makes her laugh. At this crossroads in their lives, t hey are now able to deeply connect.

Cinema Alchemy

Using films that show couples' dynamics in the context of couples therapy can help clients learn necessary attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. Movies that introduce readily grasped images can teach couples to communicate unfamiliar concepts to their partners.

Films can also be used as cautionary tales: Couples learn "by proxy" how not to do something or not to behave because they see the negative consequences of a character's behavior in a relationship.

When one partner resists therapy, encouraging them to watch a movie where a characters struggles with similar issues often helps the resisting client to open up because they are less intimidated by the therapeutic process and less afraid of getting blamed. Watching a film with subsequent discussion helps couples to see their situation from a bird's eye perspective. Resistance often results from a feeling of helplessness. Many movies demonstrate behavior change, and couples start to envision how their own problems might be solved.

Theoretical Contemplations

Film critics have called Mommie Dearest a "depressive" movie. Depressive and violent films should be used carefully in therapy because they can be re-traumatizing if they reactivate previous psychological trauma.

On the other hand, using movies in therapy that can trigger fear, anger, or sadness might help clients become more conscious of these emotions if they have been repressed. In work with psychological trauma, this is one of several treatment methods that help clients process trauma within a so-called "therapeutic window". Interventions are done within this "window" when they create enough therapeutic challenge but don't lead to an overwhelming internal experience. Emotional overwhelm needs to be avoided because it can create an avoidance response, like dissociation, etc.

When characters are portrayed who seem depressed, a film can - almost like a support group - help clients feel less isolated with their challenging experiences or they can serve as a psycho-educational tool in cognitive work. If the character's depression is a result of grief, this kind of movie helps normalize grief.

Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions

Keep the following questions in mind while you watch:

•  What parts of the movie touch you most?

•  What character do you most identify with and why?

•  What enables Kate show their vulnerability, let go of her fear of emotional intimacy, and eventually start trusting Harvey?

Questions after the movie:

•  What did you like and what did you not like about Kate's and Harvey's communication?

•  How are your communication patterns similar or different?

•  What makes you afraid of emotional intimacy (explore history)?

•  What can you learn from Kate and Harvey?

•  What do you want to do differently than Kate and Harvey?

•  Can you imagine yourself with the courage to express the truth about your hurt and/or your love, although you feel scared?


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