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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Secret World of Arrietty

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki, Keiko Niwa
Cast in US version: Bridgit Mendler, David Henrie, Will Arnett, Amy Poehler, Moises Arias, Carol Burnett

MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 2010


The Secret World of Arrietty is a Japanese animated fantasy film. It is based on The Borrowers , a 1952 novel by the British writer, Mary Norton.  

A 14-year-old boy named Shawn tells the audience that he still remembers the week during a summer he spent at his mother's childhood home with his great aunt Sadako and her housemaid Haru. The sickly teenager had been sent to the country to rest up before heart surgery. During his first day at the charming country cottage, he sees the apoplectic cat Niya trying to attack something in Sadako's enchantingly beautiful garden. But the cat soon gives up when it is chased away by a crow.

Shawn vaguely recognizes that the being Niya had tried to attack is a four-inch-tall girl. She is brimming with bravery and energy when she emerges from the bushes and brazenly runs through the garden in full daylight. While fending off menacing grasshoppers, she returns to her home through an underground air vent.

The girl is named Arrietty. She is 14 years old, and belongs to a family of tiny gleaners, the Borrowers . Humans never see them because they are terrified of what they call "human beans". Arrietty's family, the Clocks, fears they may be the last Borrowers left in the world of giants. They live in a small space below the floorboards of the Japanese country house, alongside standard-sized people, by means of pilferage of minuscule amounts of essential living supplies. A single lump of sugar will last for months. Their home that they have cobbled together from borrowed bits and purloined pieces is as comfortable and cozy as the one upstairs. A clay flowerpot serves as the hearth, and postage stamps hang like paintings.

Arrietty is curious, headstrong, and bold. She does not really believe her stoic and cautious father Pod and her worrying mother Homily when they tell her, "the world is a dangerous place for a Borrower." Because the teenager is finally old enough to embark on her first "borrowing" expedition, Pod takes his only daughter above the floorboards late at night. He shows her how he "borrows" sugar and facial tissue from well-stocked cupboards and cabinets. "Borrowers take only what they need," says the dad sternly, and he never strays from the creed.

Arrietty creatively transforms a dressmaker's pin into a weapon. After obtaining a sugar cube from the kitchen, father and daughter walk within a wall and explore an exquisitely furnished dollhouse in Shawn's bedroom. However, the girl gets spotted by Shawn while retrieving a piece of tissue from a tissue box. She accidentally loses the sugar cube because she is surprised. The boy asks her not to leave. Although Arrietty hesitates a little, she still leaves the room to follow her father.

The next day, Shawn leaves the dropped sugar cube beside the air vent where he first had spotted Arrietty. Pod warns his daughter not to take it because their existence must be kept secret from humans. But she sneaks out to visit Shawn in his bedroom. She drops the sugar cube he had left on the floor. Therefore he knows that she is there. Still hiding, she tells Shawn to leave her family alone. They do not need his help. When he finally catches a good glimpse of Arrietty, he is captivated and suggests pursuing a friendship. The girl ignores the warnings of her dad. They learn about each other's worlds, and become friends.

On her return, Pod confronts Arrietty. He is adamant that friendship with a human would never work. "Many borrowers have lost their lives," he tells her, "thinking like you." Realizing they have been detected, Pod and his wife decide that they must move out of the house. At the same time, Shawn learns from his great aunt that some of his ancestors had seen Borrowers in her house. They had the dollhouse made especially for them, with working electric lights and ovens. The Borrowers had not been seen since, however.

A little later, Pod returns injured from a borrowing mission and is helped home by Spiller, a Borrower boy he met on the way. Spiller informs them that there are some places where other Borrowers live and where the Clocks could move. Meanwhile, Shawn removes the floorboard that conceals the Borrower household and replaces their kitchen with the kitchen from the dollhouse. He does this as a display of kindness, in hopes the Borrowers would be more accepting of his knowledge of their existence. However, the Clocks become very startled by this and instead speed up their moving process.

After Pod recovers from his injury, he goes to explore some of the places Spiller suggested to them. Arrietty says goodbye to Shawn. The boy reveals to her that he has a heart condition since birth and will have an operation in a few days. The operation does not have a good chance of success. He believes that there is nothing he can do about it, telling her that eventually every living thing dies. Persistently, Arrietty convinces Shawn that he has the strength to fight for his life.

Meanwhile, the malicious housekeeper Haru notices that the floorboards have been disturbed. While great aunt Sadako is out and Shawn is still in the garden talking to Arrietty, Haru takes the opportunity and unearths the Borrowers' house. She catches Arrietty's anxiously screaming mom Homily, locks her into a pantry, and calls a pest removal company to smoke out the Borrowers. But Arrietty and Shawn stage a rescue attempt on Homily. Sadako returns home soon after and tells the pest removal people to leave.

When the Borrowers stop for dinner during their move, the newly transformed cat Niya spots Arrietty and brings Shawn to the girl. He tells his new friend that the Borrowers' fight for survival has given him hope to live through his operation.

Cinema Alchemy

Susan, a young mother, came to see me with her 8-year old daughter Ariana. The girl was an only child and had shown symptoms of anxiety lately. She was an unusually small and very shy girl who did not make friends easily. Her mom noticed that Ariana appeared nervous and was sweaty sometimes. A pediatrician had noticed her rapid heartbeat, but did not find any physical causes. He recommended therapy to treat the child's anxiety.

In my individual sessions with Ariana, I used play therapy until the girl started to feel comfortable with me. Gradually, she lost her shyness with me. From our work I learned that she felt intimidated at school because some other kids at her kindergarten seemed so big to her.

During several sessions with Susan and her husband Alex, I learned that they are both very busy with their work. Ariana grew up mostly with nannies. The family did not seem well bonded. But Susan and Alex were very concerned about their daughter and willing to do anything to help her. Alex seemed disappointed with his daughter's shyness, although he cared for her deeply.

I encouraged Alex to tell me which strengths he recognized in Ariana. After some contemplation, he said that she must be brave and persistent because she never refused to go to preschool despite her shyness. Both parents shared with me that their daughter was curious, creative, kind, and sometimes pretty energetic at home.

Susan and Alex agreed that the family needs to spend more time together. They were open to make family time a priority, and we discussed some activities that helped them improve their bonding. As one of these activities, I suggested to rent and watch The Secret World of Arrietty. I encouraged the parents to focus on the strengths that the main character, Arrietty, displayed. If they recognized a strength that they also saw in Ariana, they needed to tell this to Ariana during or after the movie. I also asked the parents to watch their daughter when they pointed out her strengths .

Susan, Alex, and Ariana came for our subsequent session. All three of them had enjoyed the movie. They wanted me to suggest other, similar films. I asked Ariana to choose a sand-tray figure from my wallboards that reminded her of Arrietty and tell me what she liked most about it. The girl held on tight to the figure. She liked that Arrietty had a big friend. "I think you are a little like Arrietty and you'll have a big friend some time too", I said, and she smiled and nodded.

Susan and Alex told me how Ariana had enjoyed their comments about her strengths when they watched the film. I encouraged them to tell their daughter again which strengths she had like Arrietty. They spent the rest of the session sharing where and when Ariana's strengths manifest. The girl appeared increasingly more relaxed and happy. The comparison with Arrietty helped the young child grasp a concept that would have been too abstract to understand at her age.  

The family continued with activities that improved their bonding. Because the parents saw how positively their daughter responded to learning about her strengths, they felt motivated to continue with similar talks when they watched movies together. Ariana's anxiety disappeared over the following months, and she gradually started to make some friends in school.

Theoretical Contemplations

People are more motivated and able to change when their strengths are supported. Therefore positive psychotherapists emphasize that therapeutic interventions that target children and adolescents by promoting their strengths can promote healing and act as a strong buffer against future psychopathology.

Since almost all children feel attracted to movies and many film characters demonstrate certain strengths or development of strengths, Positive Cinema Therapy interventions provide significant support for successful therapy.

Young clients are more able to identify their own strengths as well as weaknesses that need to be addressed when they recognize these strengths and weaknesses in movie characters. They learn from the film characters, who model virtues and strengths, to help them access and develop their potential. Therefore, Positive Cinema Therapy complements Positive Psychotherapy in an effective way and can contribute significantly to positive youth development.

Guidelines and Questions for Work with Clients

For parents:

•  Watch The Secret World of Arrietty as a family.

•  Focus on the strengths that Arrietty displays.

•  If you recognize strength in Arrietty that you also see in your child, tell her/him this during or after the movie.

•  Watch your child's response.

For child:

•  Choose a sand-tray figure (if available) that reminds you of Arrietty.

•  What do you most liked most about her?

•  Are you like Arrietty in this way?



Birgit Wolz wrote and co- 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