Can watching movies work as therapy?


Elisabeth LaMotte

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in the 2002 movie Punch-Drunk Love.

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in the 2002 movie Punch-Drunk Love.

When a shy client named Angie came in needing help, I recommended an unusual course of treatment: a movie screening.

Angie (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) grew up in an isolated, rural area with few friends and little exposure to life outside her family's farm. She was a gifted computer programmer but was uninterested in her physical appearance. Her hair and clothing often looked unwashed; she wore the same denim jacket week after week. Angie had never had a boyfriend, and longed for a romantic connection.

It took time and hard work, but Angie began taking better care of herself. She eventually met a down-to-earth, wonderful guy in her building, and they hit it off. When she ended therapy, I asked her to tell me what, if anything, was most helpful.

"Honestly," she said, "what helped the most was when you suggested that I watch 'Punch-Drunk Love.'"


This quirky love story starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson looks at what falling in love looks like when one or both people struggle with intimacy.

Angie explained:

"Seeing these two awkward characters trying so hard to connect, and watching their imperfect but beautiful union, helped me feel less alone. The kissing scene was so much like my own experiences. And believe me, my personal kissing scenes are way different than the easy breezy fireworks that others describe. That movie showed me that I'm not as much of a freak as I thought, and I promised myself that if Emily Watson's eccentric character could find love, so could I."

Angie is far from unique.

Fifteen years of private psychotherapy practice has taught me that transformations have unexpected catalysts. Therapists are trained to help clients dig deep into their psyches, family histories and daily struggles. But to achieve real change, we need to help people gain space from their problems.

I've found that one of the most effective ways to achieve that space - and to ignite a dramatic psychological shift - is to kick back and watch the right film.

Recently, for example, I worked with a client in his late 20s who came to therapy humiliated by his live-in girlfriend's discovery of his online porn habit. Jeff (whose name has been changed) was raised Catholic and expressed tremendous guilt.

As Jeff and I explored his wish to be less drawn to porn, he opened up about the aspects in his relationship with Jen that felt unbalanced. Jen had chosen every meal, every joint activity and even Jeff's new job. He had been prohibited from hanging out with his high school and college buddies.

Through our work together, Jeff realised that Jen was the problem, not porn. He began dating women with whom he felt permission to be himself.

When we ended, Jeff also pointed to a film as the true catalyst for his transformation. He told me:

"This may sound strange, but what made the biggest single difference was when you suggested that I watch the movie Don Jon. The film made me realise I'm not such a bad guy just because I watched some porn. I know we discussed this in our sessions. But watching that character felt more believable than anything you could say or do."

Why does this work? In my experience, clients who find movies helpful say that the experience of watching characters experience parallel adversity helps them feel less isolated.

Additionally, if a friend, family member, romantic partner - or even a therapist - intervenes with advice, this can come across as condescending. When an intervention feels patronising or forced, the recipient of the advice may lash out.

But watching a film with a relevant character takes condescension out of the equation and allows the viewer to reflect on his behaviour in a much less intimidating format. Cinema therapy gives permission for a client to organically pick and choose what pieces of the puzzle he/she feels ready to integrate in order to change. When a character in a film reflects a patient's flaws, it can help the patient absorb his or her role in conflicts.

In this mode, clinicians become less central to the therapy, but not irrelevant. They must select the right films. Furthermore, the film viewing is followed by clinician-structured, thoughtful discussions of the material, so that the viewer engages with the film.

I am so convinced that targeted film viewing accelerates positive therapy outcomes that I draft a quick review of any film I come across. I catalogue these reviews online; clients can access the reviews and I reduce the likelihood that I will overlook or forget a film that could be beneficial.

Films must be chosen with caution so that clients are not re-traumatised or over-stimulated. For example, the film "When a Man Loves a Woman" has helped some of my clients through substance abuse recovery, but a film as violent as "Leaving Las Vegas" could be too unsettling and might even trigger a relapse. Similarly, the film "Take This Waltz" can help someone navigate an attraction to someone other than their spouse. However, it is unwise for them to watch this film if their spouse is around, as the result could be explosive.


Although there are few studies on my particular brand of movie therapy, recent research suggests that films can play an important role in treatment.

A 2013 University of Rochester study asked couples to watch the 1967 film "Two for the Road," about a husband and wife reflecting on the high and low points in their marriage. Afterward, study participants engaged in an hour-long, clinically guided conversation on marital themes such as conflict, stress and forgiveness. They were then sent home with a list of 47 films and instructed to watch one film together each week. They also were given discussion questions.

Three years later, couples with no intervention had a divorce rate at 24 percent. Couples who had watched the films had an 11 percent divorce rate.

"A movie is a non-threatening way to get the conversation started," lead researcher Ronald D. Rogge told the New York Times. "It's really exciting because it makes it so much easier to reach out to couples and help them strengthen their relationships on a wide scale."

In another 2104 study, researchers had patients hospitalised for mental health issues watch clinically relevant films. For example, patients with schizophrenia viewed the film "A Beautiful Mind."

The study found that "movies can be an important, positive and productive means of treatment. . . The movies served as extended metaphors in the therapy sessions. They thus helped to create a better understanding and to promote different ways of expressing thoughts. It seemed that the movies represented a mirror reflecting the inner world of the patients."

LaMotte is a therapist and the founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center in Washington.

The Washington Post