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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA




Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford
Producer: Ronald L. Schwary
Screenwriter: Alvin Sargent
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern, Dinah Manoff, Fredric Lehne, James Sikking
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1980


The Jarretts, an upper-middle-class family, live in a suburban overly large house, which looks like it's out of Better Homes and Gardens. Their second son Conrad, a 16-year-old high school junior, used to be an ordinary teen: a good student, popular, and a successful member of the swim team.

About a year ago, he helplessly watched his older brother Jordan drown in a boating accident. Since then the boy became severely depressed and dreams furiously, jerking awake bathed in sweat. He has frightening flashbacks to the accident, experiences chronic agitation, appetite loss, and poor concentration. Conrad avoids his former friends, and suffers from extreme guilt. He blames himself for his brother's death. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt and hospitalization, Conrad has become a semi-outcast at school. The teenager appears distracted and unreachable. He is a different person to those who used to be his friends.

His father, Calvin, a mild-mannered successful Chicago attorney, can no longer connect with Conrad either and worries about him. His love for his son is sincere, yet also inarticulate and shy. Confused and hurt, Calvin treats Conrad as if he is a fragile ornament, not to be touched. His mother Beth is an embittered, selfish, and superficially cheerful homemaker whom "everyone loves." This controlling matriarch loved the dead older son more than Conrad. Mother and son live in an atmosphere of unvoiced blame. Her palpable distance and cold unconscious resentment chills horribly as she shuts Conrad out of her life. Previously the second-born had lived in his brother's shadow. Calvin tries to mediate between Beth and Conrad, but feels stuck in the middle and cannot bring them together.

Eventually Conrad agrees to see a psychologist, Dr. Berger. After the boy states that his purpose for coming to therapy is gaining control over his life, Berger responds, "I'm not big on control". In order to buffer the impact of this challenging statement, he continues, "But it's your money, so to speak." Then the psychologist uses teenage language to build a therapeutic alliance like "control is a tough nut". By rummaging through his notes, he communicates to Conrad that he is not the only one who lacks control in his life.

Berger tries to build rapport to help his client face his emotions. He wants Conrad to cancel his swimming practice and see him twice a week because they are "working on a difficult problem." Despite his initial guardedness, Conrad eventually agrees to psychotherapy twice weekly.

In early sessions, Conrad avoids talking about anything other than his dreams. When the purpose of avoiding his feelings by doing so is pointed out, Conrad pushes himself to experience emotional catharses of anger. But he reports that he did not feel better afterward. Consequently the teenager repeatedly retreats again to a guarded attitude about any feelings, which reflects both his intellectual style of functioning, and his inability to grieve for his brother's death.

Besides effectively confronting Conrad's initial passive-aggressive resistance, the psychologist experiments with flexible therapeutic boundaries to help his client acknowledge and address his anxiety about his anger and sadness. For example, by turning on music, he discloses his musical taste. Berger also demonstrates how varying distance during therapy can be clinically effective. He wheels his chair far away from the client when he wants to give the adolescent space. A few seconds later, he wheels it close up and confronts the teenager by being "in his face."

Berger's interventions allow Conrad to face his troubling past and address his feelings about his parents. After his realization that he had competed unsuccessfully for his mother's attention with his older brother, he quits the swim team on which Jordan had been a star, and for the first time asks a girl out on a date.

Beth appears angrier at the embarrassment she experienced than worried about her son when she confronts Conrad about quitting the swim team. As he recognizes this, he becomes able to express his anger at her about never having visited him during his psychiatric hospitalization.

When Conrad calls Berger in the middle of the night because his friend committed suicide, the psychologist conducts a session immediately. The therapist's availability at this crucial moment allows his client to work through his guilt, anger, and grief successfully in a painful and moving emotional battle. The teenager has a significant breakthrough on his path toward recovery.

Cinema Alchemy

When Brianna, a 17-year old high school student lost her only sibling, 14-year old Katie, to heart failure several months ago, she started withdrawing from friends and family. Because she feared that peers would make fun of her, she never cried about this loss. Although her parents told her that her sister's death was not her fault - Katie had suffered from a congenial incurable heart condition - Brianna felt responsible for her death. She believed she should not have invited her to play table tennis the day before she died. Brianna appeared sensitive and mature for her age. Her parents brought the girl to therapy because she seemed depressed and had nightmares. They told me that they try to not show Brianna their own sadness about Katie's death to not depress her even more.

During our first session, Brianna appeared withdrawn and made it clear to me that starting therapy was not her idea. I asked her whether she was open to some family therapy sessions after watching the movie Ordinary People with her parents a home. When she agreed, I made the same suggestion to her parents.

They told me during our subsequent family therapy session that all of them cried when they saw Conrad's pain in the movie. Brianna's parents agreed that these were really tears about the loss of their Katie. Watching the film served as a catalyst for their emotions. The fact that the whole family responded with tears to the film helped Brianna normalize her sadness and her impulses to cry. More grief surfaced throughout several family therapy sessions. With the help of my guiding questions (see below) the family started to accept their mourning as a healing process.

During later individual sessions, I asked Brianna what she thought about Conrad's therapy sessions. By talking about the relationship between this character and his therapist, she was able to address her anxiety about her own therapeutic process. This helped her break through her resistance to therapy and start trusting me.

Subsequently I worked with Brianna's guilt by referring to Conrad's feelings (see question below). As she recognized that Conrad's guilt was not justified, she was able to see the same for herself. Pretty soon her nightmares and depression symptoms disappeared.

Theoretical Contemplation

Movies like Ordinary People, used as an adjunct to grief therapy, can serve as a catalyst for suppressed emotions. This 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. The character Conrad appears initially as a negative and later as a positive model.

When one family member resists therapy, encouraging them to watch a movie where a characters struggles with similar issues can help the resisting client to open up because they are less intimidated by the therapeutic process and less afraid of getting blamed.

Guidelines for Questions for Work with Grief

Before the movie:

Crying is ok when you feel sad. Let yourself cry when you feel like it during this movie.

Ask clients to notice ...

•  how Conrad's negative, self-defeating beliefs and his resistance to grief slowly change,

•  how he develops a new sense of compassion and purpose when he finally gives himself permission to grieve,

•  how Conrad take small acts of courage in spite of fear, and

•  how his determination and endurance helps him become stronger.

After the movie:

•  Do you think that it's anybody's fault that Jordan in the movie died?

•  How do you feel about Conrad'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?


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