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Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Director: Joel Zwick
Producers: Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Gary Goetzman
Screenwriter: Nia Vardalos
Stars: Nia Vardalos, Michael Constantine, John Corbett, Lainie Kazan, Louis Mandylor, Gia Carides, Bruce Gray, Joey Fatone
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2002


The film opens with a dark, cold, rainy morning in Chicago. Toula Portokalos is arriving at work with her father, who expresses to his daughter how old she appears. Toula looks as if she is used to this negativity and feels badly about herself. She is a waitress at a Greek restaurant, owned by her family. She allows herself to be walked all over by her family and friends, who make most of her choices for her. Her family promotes three traditional values marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone until you die. From an early age, she is mortified by their patriotic over-the-top ways. The movie demonstrates how her peers at school ridiculed Toula for being different when they were children. Most members of her family, especially her father, believe she is not capable of doing more with her life. Toula looks dreary and old for her age. She has poor posture and a sour expression. Her hair is uncombed and she wears a drab brown outfit. One day while working, she sees Ian, who she finds attractive. She hides behind the counter to peer at him.

This is a turning point for Toula. When she begins taking classes at a local college, her confidence improves. Toula becomes a successful travel agent. She is able to reinvent herself and create a new appearance. She gains self-esteem. Her old insecurities still show when she is a bit star-struck seeing Ian again, hitting her head on a cabinet. As she overcomes her insecurities, she bucks tradition and becomes engaged to this man who is not Greek, and eventually wins the family over to him and to their wedding plans. What ensues is a tale of what happens when two families – one loud Greek Orthodox, the other conservative Episcopalian – must reconcile their differences for the sake of their children's happiness. Toula stands her ground and elicits the support she needs to reach her goals.

Since this movie is a comedy and not a character study, it is up to us to imagine Toula's resources for her transformation. This can be used an invitation for clients to fill in the holes with their imagination and look inward at the same time, finding their own resources.

Cinema Alchemy

My client Terry suffered from low self-esteem. Even though Terry is an attractive woman, she often complained about her appearance. Besides working in a law firm, she took some college classes but didnt think that she was smart enough to make it through school. Terry would have loved to become a teacher. When I asked her about her upbringing, she told me that she had very critical parents. She was the oldest and her parents had extremely high expectations of her. Almost nothing she did was good enough.

Because Terry had such a negative self-image, she appeared insecure at work, which made her less successful than she could be. She told me that she did not want to date because that would be too scary. Most of her few friends also suffered from low self-esteem.

In session we talked about her inner critic and I showed her David Burns list of possible cognitive distortions. After reading them carefully she told me, I am sorry, but I do not think that my beliefs about myself are distorted. How I see myself looks very true to me. She could not imagine a different perspective.

At this point I suggested she watch the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding and encouraged her to especially focus on how Toula transforms herself from an ugly duckling into an attractive, successful woman.

Throughout the following sessions, I asked Terry the questions that are listed as guidelines below. Since she was very motivated to work on her low self-esteem, she was open to this process. Terry didnt know all the answers right away but kept remembering my questions throughout the next month and came up with the answers. Terry stated that Toula may have struggled with most of the cognitive distortions in the list, saying Toula labels herself as ugly and incapable. It was obvious that she takes on the shoulds of her family who seem to keep Toula in a box. When Terry saw this, she had to admit to herself that she struggled with these distortions herself. She understood also that she frequently uses mental filters by dwelling on the negative and ignoring the positive.

As soon as she admitted to herself that her self-image might be distorted like Toulas in the first part of the film, Terry started questioning her thinking. What if it wasnt completely true? If her thinking was distorted, could she change like Toula did? Terry came more and more to the conclusion: What Toula can do, I can do too. Whenever she caught herself dwelling on her weaknesses (labeling), she started questioning it. When she noticed some real shortcomings, such as her weakness in math, she acknowledged it and studied harder until she completed her class successfully. Before Terry would have given up because she believed she was too stupid to get it anyway (all-ornothing thinking). Terry began to enjoy her classes and became a good student. After a while and with newly gained confidence, she started dating too.

Guidelines for work with clients

Before the movie:

• Watch how Toula transforms herself from an ugly duckling into an attractive, successful woman.

After the movie:

• Do you think that Toulas view of herself could have been distorted * at the beginning of the movie?

• Which might have been her negative beliefs?

• How, do you think, was this character able to let go of her self-doubts?

• Imagine yourself as Toula when she lets go of her negative beliefs.

- What negative thoughts about yourself are dropping away?
- How does this feel?
- How do you perceive yourself now?


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