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Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Secret Lives of Dentists

Director: Alan Rudolph
Producers: Campbell Scott, George VanBuskirk
Screenwriter: Craig Lucas
Stars: Campbell Scott, Robin Tunney, Denis Leary, Hope Davis, Adele DMan
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2003


Based on a novella from Jane Smileys book The Age of Grief, this movie tells the story about an apparently happy family. But we learn fast that there is more going on than what meets the eye. David and his wife Dana are successful dentists who work in the same office. They have been married for ten years. David is the primary parent for their three daughters. He senses that his wife has grown more distant but he doesn't know what to do about it. He suspects that Dana may be having an affair with the musical director of the amateur opera troupe she sings in. Speaking a bit too loud to her, one can sense David studying her for evidence of sin. His eyes study her legs and the hem of her skirt, wondering what her sexual needs might be.

Eventually David secretly happens upon his wife and the director having an intimate moment. He is furious with her for betraying him but unwilling to confront her with what he knows, lest she leave him. To keep his family together, he demonstrates the well-meaning victim of circumstance who was wronged. As a metaphor for his inner world and analogy for his view of relationships he admires the resilience of teeth above all things: "Only life can kill teeth, because once you die, your teeth go right on living".

At the same time his more alive inner world appears in the form of David's destructive shadow self. He sinks into a fantasy, which takes the form of the ghost-like Slater, an angered patient. David had filled a cavity of the real person, Slater, only to be confronted at the community opera by him, as he holds up a filling that had dropped out and informs the audience that David is a lousy dentist. Now Slater becomes a manifestation of David's repressed emotions by entering his consciousness as an alter ego who keeps pushing him to act out his darkest thoughts. He encourages David to ditch the wife, go on the road, chuck it all, and leave the kids. When his daughters act out, he tells David, "These kids ought to be struck. May I hit them?" David has to think for a moment before he says no.

When his wife tries to talk to David he is unavailable. She says she wishes they were closer: "You scare me a little." At one point Dana tells him she is experiencing their marriage as getting smaller and smaller.

David's uptightness and the unhealthy dynamics between them send waves of tension throughout the household. A physician implies that their oldest daughter's stomach problems are related to arguments the parents are having in front of the children. The youngest daughter wants nothing but her daddy, even striking the mother when placed in her arms.

And then, a stomach virus mimics the sick relationship between the parties. David throws up first before the illness passes from one family member to the next, over the course of five wearying, nauseous days. He cares for the family while coming apart inside. The physical purging and weakness seems to induce a process of emotional cleansing as well as increased vulnerability. As David and Dana let go of their defensive postures the whole family discovers a new potential for emotional intimacy. The couple stops taking each other for granted.

Cinema Alchemy:

I noticed that using systems-oriented therapy and communication training in combination with watching films that show family dynamics helps clients to:

• understand their problem as a function of being part of a larger system

• identify by comparison how they had or had not satisfactorily adjusted in their system

• retrieve or learn necessary attitudes, perceptions, behaviors, etc.

• communicate unfamiliar concepts to their partners through films that introduce readily grasped images

• meaningfully connect or reconnect through improved communication

When one family member 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.

A married couple in their thirties, Christine and Sean, came in telling me that they were close to getting divorced. Since the couple had gotten married a year ago they had reached an impasse in their relationship. They lived with Christine's eight year-old son, Mathew, whose grades at school have been declining for a while. Mathew's biological father was not in the picture.

Sean complained that Christine is not affectionate any more and rarely wants to have sex. He called her cold and indifferent and believed that their communication was compromised because for Christine, English was a second language.

Christine thought that her language skills were adequate. She had given up trying to explain to her husband that she doesn't feel attracted to him when she feels taken for granted because he vegges out in front of the TV instead of engaging with her or helping with chores.

After several sessions into our work, when they were particularly hard to move out of their blaming game, I ask them to watch The Secret Lives of Dentists and gave them the handout that is mentioned below.

The couple came back shocked because they recognized the effect that their tension might have on Mathew. Both identified with David and Dana in different ways. Suddenly our work started to move forward again. The film served them as a metaphor that represented the feelings they couldn't put into words before without attacking the other person.

Guidelines for working with couples

Handout given before the movie:

Keep the following questions in mind while you watch:

• What parts of the movie touch you m

• What character do you most identify with and when

• How does Dana and David's relationship affect their children?

• How could they improve their communication?

• What helped them improve their relationship?

Questions after the movie:

• How does Dana and David's relationship compare to yours?

• What can you learn from them?

• What can you do better?

• The fact that you were touched by parts of the movie might indicate that there is a message that guides you toward healing and wholeness for yourself and your family. What is this message?


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