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Recommended Movies for Healing and Personal Growth

"Cinema Therapy" was created and popularized by Dr. Gary Solomon, the first to write on using movies as therapy. I, too, often recommend to clients movies that illustrate issues addressed in therapy. Listed below are the movies I most often recommend.

 Disney's the Kid   Groundhog Day   Shirley Valentine   Ordinary People   Clean and Sober   When a Man Loves a Woman   The Story of Us   My Life   Beautiful Mind   Antwone Fisher   Peaceful Warrior

Disney's the Kid (2000), with Bruce Willis - THE ISSUE: HEALING THE CHILD WITHIN. This film perfectly illustrates the process of healing one's wounded child. (To better understand the metaphor of the wounded child and why it is important in therapy, please read My Child Within.) Bruce Willis plays Russ, a 40-year-old, self-centered but successful "image consultant" who is failing in his personal life. The movie begins with his girlfriend telling him, "Every time I'm ready to walk away because I think you'll never be able to love, I see the little boy in you and what you could be." Shortly after that Russ finds an 8-year-old boy wandering about his home, and then discovers that the boy is none other than himself. He rejects the boy: "Get out of my life. I want nothing to do with you. You are my past and I'm finished with you." Fortunately, the boy refuses to leave and little by little Russ comes to embrace him.  You can watch the movie to see how things turn out, but the important point is this: Many individuals who suffered in childhood do not realize that their adult relationship problems are directly related to their unhealed emotional wounds from childhood. This powerful movie brings to life the process of learning to embrace one's wounded child and the personal growth that follows from such healing. I highly recommend Disney's the Kid to anyone who suffered in childhood and feels unfulfilled in relationships. For more information about healing the inner child, go to Reparenting the Wounded Child.

Groundhog Day (1993), with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell - THE ISSUE: THE PROCESS OF PERSONAL GROWTH. Groundhog Day towers above most romantic comedies, with much more depth than might appear at first glance. Bill Murray plays Phil, a narcissistic TV weatherman who travels with his crew, including Rita (Andie MacDowell), to report on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. When a freak snowstorm prevents them from leaving Punxsutawney, Phil awakens the next morning to find himself living Groundhog Day all over again, a scenario which repeats itself about 40 times until the end of the movie.

Of interest, though, is that Phil believes Rita likes him when in fact she loathes him. When Phil realizes he is living the same day repeatedly, and he's the only one who knows it, he initially uses the information gained from previous Groundhog Days to try to manipulate Rita into loving him. But each time he gets close to tricking Rita, she sees through his games and rejects him.

Despite Phil's arrogance, he longs for love and connection (as we all do). So, the opportunity to live the same day repeatedly offers him the chance to learn from his mistakes. Initially he tries to discover Rita's interests so he can pretend to share them to win her over. When that fails, he tries to be the boyfriend he thinks she wants. And when that fails, he becomes suicidal. But out of deep despair something clicks, and Phil makes a profound change: He decides to stop the manipulation and just be himself, and, lo and behold, Rita falls in love with him.

Personal growth is often born out of suffering because pain is usually what motivates us to take risks and try new behaviors in the face of the same old situations. Often we cause our own suffering by failing to learn from our mistakes. In Groundhog Day, the slow and painful journey of personal growth is exquisitely illustrated in the character of Phil, who is forced to live the same day over and over until he gets it right. As Robert Frost wrote: "Our very life depends on everything recurring 'til we answer from within." For more information about the process of personal growth, go to Carl Benedict's Counseling Philosophy - Returning to True Self.

Shirley Valentine (1989) - THE ISSUE: REDISCOVERING YOUR TRUE SELF. Shirley Valentine, played by Pauline Collins, is a middle-aged British housewife whose husband expects a certain meal cooked a certain way on a certain day each week. One evening she deviates from her lifeless routine and cooks something different, but her indignant husband throws the meal in the sink and orders her back to the routine. Later we find Shirley staring in a mirror, tears streaming from her eyes, asking: "What ever happened to Shirley Valentine? Where did she go?" When a female friend invites Shirley on a trip to the Greek Islands, Shirley at first accepts but then nearly backs out in a moment of panic. But somehow Shirley finds the courage to board the plane. When she finally arrives in Greece, her friend meets a man and disappears, and Shirley is left to explore Greece on her own. In the process, Shirley Valentine rediscovers herself.

We all tend to lose ourselves in the safety and comfort of routines. We live on automatic pilot and forget who we are as our lives become hollow shells of the dreams we once had. The rebirth of Shirley Valentine offers hope and guidance to all of us. Hooray for Shirley!!!!! For more information about the process of personal growth, go to Carl Benedict's Counseling Philosophy - Returning to True Self.

Ordinary People (1980), with Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch and directed by Robert Redford - THE ISSUE: GRIEF AND LOSS. This impressive film begins in the aftermath of the death of a son in a drowning accident, and accurately illustrates how painfully difficult grieving can be. While the father Calvin struggles to hold his crumbling family together, his wife Beth sinks deeper into bitterness, and his other son Conrad struggles with guilt. Judd Hirsch plays a therapist helping Conrad grieve the loss of his idolized brother. Ordinary People, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, faithfully brings to life a family struggling with loss. For more information on grieving, go to Grief and Grieving: The Process of Accepting Loss.

Clean and Sober (1988), with Michael Keaton and Morgan Freeman - THE ISSUE: ADDICTION AND RECOVERY. Clean and Sober is one of the best films depicting addiction. Michael Keaton plays Daryl, a hustling real estate agent addicted to cocaine. When his life cascades out of control, he decides to hide out in an anonymous inpatient addiction treatment facility. There he encounters Craig (Morgan Freeman), an addiction counselor and recovering addict, who knows addicts inside and out. Clean and Sober accurately illustrates the difficulties addicts face in overcoming denial and trying to regain control of their lives. For more information on addiction, go to Addiction: Compulsive Avoidance of Immediate Pain.

When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), with Meg Ryan and Andy Garcia - THE ISSUES: RECOVERY FROM ADDICTION and CODEPENDENCY. This film stands out, not only for its realistic portrayal of recovery from alcoholism, but also for the accompanying portrayal of recovery from the "addiction" of codependency, which often exists in the dysfunctional person's partner.  Meg Ryan plays Alice, a mother of two, married to Michael, an airline pilot. Alice hides her drinking until her life spins out of control, affecting her husband and children. When a Man Loves a Woman skillfully illustrates why alcoholism is a family disease, and how Michael's good-intentioned efforts to help Alice actually serve to make the family sicker. Only after Alice and Michael are able to work their individual programs for recovery does the family begin to heal. For more information on addiction, go to Addiction: Compulsive Avoidance of Immediate Pain. For more information on codependency, go to Codependency: Loss of Self In Others.

The Story of Us (1999), with Bruce Willis and Michelle Pheiffer - THE ISSUE: THE PROCESS OF FORGING A HEALTHY MARRIAGE. Bruce Willis and Michelle Pheiffer play Ben and Katie, who after 15 years of marriage believe they are no longer in love despite appearing to be the perfect family. The Story of Us maturely illustrates how Ben and Katie find their painful way back to each other. As is often the case in troubled marriages, Ben and Katie hadn't fallen out of love; rather, they'd built a wall of hurt and mistrust between them because of many unresolved conflicts. The Story of Us realistically depicts the process couples must go through to dismantle the walls between them and rekindle the love they share.

My Life (1993), with Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman - THE ISSUES: GRIEF AND LOSS, PERSONAL GROWTH IS OFTEN BORN OF LOSS,  and IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO HEAL.  Bob (Michael Keaton) learns that his wife Gail (Nicole Kidman) is pregnant with their first child. Bob is then diagnosed with cancer and given four months to live. He fears his child will never know him, so he decides to make videos of himself teaching his child about life. Bob, however, has never been a happy man, and in the process of making the videos, he is forced to come to grips with his own unhappiness. Despite the odds, Bob lives to meet his son. A few days before Bob dies, he goes to his son's crib, looks at him lovingly, and whispers, "I know this sounds crazy, and I wish things could be different, but I've never been happier in my life." My Life is a powerful film illustrating how loss can lead to personal growth and how the path to personal growth never ends. For more information on grieving and personal growth, go to Grief and Grieving: The Process of Accepting Loss and Carl Benedict's Counseling Philosophy - Returning to True Self.

Beautiful Mind (2001), with Russell Crowe - THE ISSUE: THE PROCESS OF ACCEPTING MENTAL ILLNESS. Denial of mental illness is common. When I was in my 20s, I would hear elder relatives complain about back pain. I considered these folks whiners until one day I awakened with back pain so severe I couldn't get out of bed.  This denial about another's pain occurs with mental illness, too. Until one has experienced debilitating anxiety, depression, mood swings, or hallucinations, the tendencies are to deny it exists in others and to blame the victims.

In addition, those who suffer from mental illness often must overcome denial to realize they need treatment. Beautiful Mind is the true story of John Forbes Nash, Jr., played by Russell Crowe, a brilliant mathematician who won the Nobel prize for mathematics. This inspirational story brings to life Nash's painful journey into accepting, understanding, and learning to manage the paranoid schizophrenia from which he was suffering. In the process, Nash learned that medications helped and that his mind was capable of creating stories (delusions) and voices (hallucinations) that have no basis in reality.

In a poignant scene near the end of the film, a man approaches Professor Nash after class to tell him he had won the Nobel prize. Nash turns to a student at his side and asks, "Did you just hear a man tell me I won the Nobel prize?" The student responded, "Yes, I did." Nash then turns to the man and says, "Thank you very much." Nash had learned how to live a manageable life despite suffering a serious mental illness.

Antwone Fisher (2002), with Denzel Washington - THE ISSUE: HEALING THE HURT THAT FUELS ANGER. This autobiographical story of the real-life Antwone Fisher, played by Derek Luke, skillfully illustrates the process of treating anger problems by healing the hurt within. Denzel Washington plays naval psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Davenport to whom Antwone Fisher is referred for his explosive temper. As Dr. Davenport slowly gains Fisher's trust, the young sailor opens up about the traumatic events of his childhood. Eventually Dr. Davenport empowers Antwone to confront the past and take back the power that was stolen from him by abuse and neglect. In the process, Antwone heals and matures. For more information on anger, go to Anger Management: Making Anger an Ally.

Peaceful Warrior (2005), with Nick Nolte -  THE ISSUES: MINDFULNESS AND LIVING IN THE MOMENT.  This powerful film, based on the best-selling autobiographical novel by Dan Millman, a promising college gymnast with Olympic aspirations, brings to life Dan's struggle to overcome his fears, pride, childhood hurt, and loss after a serious motorcycle accident. Nick Nolte plays "Socrates," a mysterious character who helps Dan learn to let go of stinking thinking and live in the moment. For more information on stinking thinking and living in the moment, go to Taming the Mind, Meditative Breathing: More Than You Think, and Mistaken Beliefs.

Click here to see Carl's YouTube videos about some of the movies he recommends.

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Copyright 2005-2022 Serenity Online Therapy
All Text and many photos by Carl Benedict

"Our very life depends on everything's recurring till we answer from within."  Robert Frost