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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

The Upside of Anger

Director: : Mike Binder
Producers: Jack Binder, Alex Gartner, Sammy Lee, Mike Binder, Mark Damon
Screenwriter: Mike Binder
Stars:Joan Allen, Kevin Costner, Mike Binder, Erika Christensen, Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2005


Director-writer Mike Binder, himself a child of divorce, tells the story of a sharp-witted suburban wife Terry, who awakens one morning to find that her husband of more than twenty years has unexpectedly walked out of the marriage. All signs point to his having fled the country to begin a new life in Sweden with his secretary, and never to return. She plunges into a burning anger against him for this betrayal and begins each day by trying to bury her rage in booze.

Terry's husband left her to care for four headstrong daughters by herself. Their problems complicate her life even further. College-aged Hadley and her mother haven't gotten along for years, and things only get worse when Hadley introduces boyfriend Dave to the family. High school senior Andy doesn't want to go to college and is dating a man much too old for her. Emily refuses to eat.   She wants to be a ballet dancer, which her mother doesn't approve of.   Young Popeye is learning about love from a boy who can't reciprocate her feelings. The girls dress expensively, prepare the family meals, and run the household, while their mother slips into a world of bitterness. Terry makes no bones about her excessive drinking, even challenging her daughters to make an issue of her drowning her sorrows.

Daughter Popeye, the narrator of the film, states that all the sweetness of her mother's life in the past has vanished and been replaced by rage against their father. This teenager's way of dealing with the tension in the household is to create a video dealing with the destruction in the world brought on by anger and violence.

  Soon their neighbor and Terry's husband's friend, Denny, a "retired", once-great star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers turned radio disk jockey, becomes fascinated with Terry and her daughters. Denny's arrival on the scene is awkward, at first, but a genuine liking takes hold between him and Terry and an odd sort of mating ritual begins. When she offers him a quickie, as part of a campaign to get even with her departed husband, Denny hides in his yard. They appear like two imperfect, alcoholic, resentful ordinary people in the suburbs, with enough money to support themselves ntent to which they have become accustomed.

The domestic chaos leaves Terry's daughters out on a limb. They want their old mother back, but are forced to juggle their mom's emotional outbursts and romantic dilemmas as well as their own.

Although Denny starts out as a drinking buddy for Terry, he slowly evolves into her romantic partner, a source of strength, and eventually into an ad-hoc father to her daughters. The film plays out the relationships among all of them.

Eventually an unexpected twist creates a sense of resolution and calmness for the family.

Cinema Alchemy

After viewing The Upside of Anger, a member of my weekly Cinema Alchemy group, Evelyn, told the group that she hated the character Terry because she saw her as selfish, rude, heartless, and abusing her authority as a parent. Evelyn's uncharacteristically strong negative reaction made me wonder whether this character might be forcing her to confront disowned parts of herself.

I asked her how aggression was handled in her family of origin. Evelyn remembered that no one ever yelled. Everyone was nice to everyone else. When she tried to express disagreement, her mom told her, "Do not say anything if you cannot say something nice."

Evelyn also told us that usually, when her husband starts a fight, she does not express anger or frustration. She hates conflict and believes that she would lose an argument anyway. Once in a while, however, when her husband goes too far, much to Evelyn's surprise and embarrassment, intense rage suddenly breaks out of her and she has to have a drink.

Evelyn also told us that she has very good relationships with her colleagues and bosses at work. She is not completely happy at work though, because several times she has been passed by for promotion. This puzzles her because she always completes her tasks diligently. Pushier colleagues, who have also taken more initiative in certain projects, have been promoted instead of her.   Evelyn also remembered that she sometimes has a secret desire to demonstrate stronger boundaries with people who take advantage of her at work. This desire makes her feel selfish--she is ashamed of it.

Evelyn has been aware of her fear of conflict all along. Reflecting on her family history, she started to consider that she might have repressed her aggressive impulses as well as her selfish needs. She also surmised that assertiveness, strength, determination, and creativity might have ended up in her "shadow bag" too.

Soon Evelyn started to become more aware of angry emotions, feeling them fully, without acting them out, and just sitting with them. Consequently her anger transformed itself. Evelyn became more assertive, first in our group and consequently at home and at work. Her embarrassing outbursts, followed by drinking, stopped.  

Theoretical Contemplations

In psychoanalytic theory, projection is seen as a defense mechanism in which various forbidden thoughts and impulses are attributed to another person rather than the self, thus warding off anxiety. Getting to know these disowned parts prevents clients from acting out in an involuntary and undesired way. Becoming conscious and accepting these "shadow" qualities can also help clients become more authentic human beings and access their hidden potential.

The Evocative Way of Cinema Alchemy teaches that we need to consider that we might project our own not yet fully conscious inner qualities onto movie characters when we have a strong negative reaction to them or their behavior. Becoming consciously aware of these reactions can help us start accessing parts of our psyche that we weren't aware of before.

 Stages of working with projection of disowned parts:

1. Watching a character outside ourselves in a movie.

2. Beginning to dislike a character, their behavior, or certain attributes that we do not recognize in ourselves.

3. Examining whether a character, their behavior, or attributes might be part of our not-yet-fully-recognized disowned and repressed "shadow" self.

4. Exploring ways to become more whole, by embracing the projected positive qualities in order to realize our full potential, as well as acknowledging our repressed "shadow" self to move toward emotional healing and inner freedom.


First rule out that the client didn't have a strong negative reaction to a character because she, or somebody she cares about, has been emotionally hurt or disappointed by someone of whom the movie character reminds her of.

Possible questions after the movie :

•  What do you believe is the reason for your strong negative emotional response to a film character or his behavior?

•  Do you remember a time in your life when a well-meaning person told you that she noticed a similar undesirable attitude or trait in you as that displayed by the movie character?

•  Is it possible that you disliked the character or his behavior so intensely because you were told that you should never be this way? Therefore you try to be different.

•  If so, are there any related, desirable qualities that might stay hidden together with the unacceptable ones?

•  Do you get a sense of the potential that you might develop if you started owning some of these qualities? How do you feel when you sense your related, latent inner 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