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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA

 

 

Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

 

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Producers: Ben Browning, Kevin Misher
Screenwriters: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast: Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis , Emma Roberts , Viola Davis , Zoe Kravitz, Aasif Mandvi
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2010

Review

It's Kind of a Funny Story tells the coming-of-age tale about 15-year old Craig, a boy with big eyes, a hesitant smile and a diffident, sensitive demeanor. The teen is beginning to crack under the academic pressure to succeed in fields that he is not interested in at an exclusive public high school for gifted students. Although Craig is fairly intelligent, he feels out of place among the other students. The boy is in a constant state of panic about his future, which makes him prone to fits of stress vomiting. Amid these despondencies, he falls in love with his best friend Aaron's girl Nia.

Craig feels that he is at the breaking point after he dreams about taking a leap off of the Brooklyn Bridge. Therefore the anxious and depressed teen begs to be checked in at Argeron, a New York psychiatric clinic. At the emergency room, Craig feels embarrassed when he is trying to explain himself to a busy doctor. Therefore he first underplays the seriousness of his problem. When the physician attempts to release him, the boy changes his strategy and exaggerates his struggles. Much to his surprise, the doctor believes him and has him committed to the psychiatric ward for a minimum of five days of observation.

Now Craig realizes that this is not as simple as chilling out for a while. He believes that he made a mistake when he discovers that checking in is much easier than checking out. To make matters worse, the youth psychiatric ward is undergoing renovations, and he is forced to stay in the adult unit with patients who are more seriously disturbed.

The film portrays this mental hospital as a place of controlled chaos. Because of their mental instability, the patients' lives are unpredictable. Their psychiatric conditions make them incapable of fully interacting with other members of society. At the same time they are experiencing a sense of community in the hospital.

Craig interacts with a number of unique residents. First he befriends Bobby, a longtime patient and the "captain" of the floor. Although this new semi-mentor is depressed too, he takes the newcomer under his wing. Bobby urges the teen to seize the day even though has not been able to do the same with his own life. Craig develops a crush for Noelle, an artistically inclined teenager. She is prone to cutting herself. Therefore her inner wounds have become visible through scares on her face. Craig's depressed Egyptian roommate spends nearly every waking and sleeping hour curled up in bed.

Despite his affection for Noelle, Craig is still obsessed with Nia, who separated from his friend Aaron. Infatuated with the boy's dark side, the girl visits him and attempts to seduce the boy in his hospital room. But things go wrong when the teenager's Moslem roommate discovers them and panics.

Although Craig's parents are well meaning, they are not able to give him the support and sympathy he needs during their hospital visits. When they learn in family therapy sessions that their son's condition was triggered by stress, his father is unable to let go of his ambition for the boy's academic future that was one reason for his son's breakdown in the first place.

In individual and group therapy, Craig comes to understand some of the roots of his problems. He also gains perspective and gleans life lessons from other goodhearted patients. In this process the teen undergoes a journey of self-discovery that results in an almost magical transformation.

Craig discovers that he is a talented artist. When he lets his imagination loose, he creates amazing drawings. As he experiments with his natural artistic abilities and explores his true feelings, he develops a closer bond with Noelle. They race through the halls of the hospital and wind up on the roof, where they express their affection for each other.

Craig also creatively begins to help some other patients including his depressed roommate. Finally, as he gets ready to exit the psychiatric ward, the teen is able to question his extreme academic ambitions that had created anxiety-provoking pressure for him. He experiences a whirlwind tour of a more positive imagined future: a vision of all that can be wonderful, scary, and - at the same time - exhilarating about young adult life.

Cinema Alchemy

I received a call from a psychiatric hospital, asking me whether I would accept the referral of an almost 16-year-old girl. Melinda was described to me as a gentle and academically ambitious teenager. After I agreed to see her, I learned from her medical records that the girl and her family were Chinese. She had been admitted to the psychiatric ward hospital after she had told a school counselor about her suicidal ideation. Melinda was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent and Insomnia. She took now Prozac and a sleeping aid.

When the girl arrived with her father, Frank for her first session, I tried to engage him. But he hardly spoke English and seemed very uncomfortable in my office. Frank just handed me the co-payment for the session and left. Melinda looked intimidated and a little defiant. She wore a hat that she had pulled deep over her forehead. I hardly was able to see her eyes. She responded to my questions with very short answers. This pattern repeated itself for several sessions.

Slowly I learned that nobody except Melinda spoke English well in her family. They did not believe in therapy. But her father continued to take the girl to her weekly sessions with me because the hospital had told him to do so. Since family therapy seemed very difficult to arrange, I decided to initially continue with individual sessions.

Over time, I came to understand that Melinda lived with a big part of her extended family, including grandparents and a drug-addicted aunt, in one house. She told me that she felt often sad and depressed because family members fought loudly all the time. Except for her father and an uncle, she felt uncomfortable talking to anybody in her family.

On weekends Melinda frequently stayed with her uncle and his family in their house. She loved him and his young children. This uncle functioned as a mentor for my client and told her that she could stay with his family whenever she wanted and her parents agreed. His house was a refuge for her.

I also learned that Melinda did not engage much with friends and felt isolated. All along she had not been comfortable bringing friends to her home. Now her hospital stay added to her embarrassment. During her most recent school year, my client had been one of the best students in her class. But after missing classes while at the hospital, she was afraid that she would not be able to catch up.

I encouraged Melinda to watch It's Kind of a Funny Story , which was playing in the local theaters. When she came back for her next session, I was very surprised to see the teen without a hat for the first time. She looked me directly into the eyes for the first time. Instead of giving short answers, she appeared engaged and interested in our work. Now I got to know an open, sensitive, kind, and intelligent girl who seemed mature for her age .

As an adamant movie-goer, Melinda loved this film. Even though her hospital experience was very different from Craig's, watching this film made her feel less "weird" as a former psychiatric patient. I asked her what message the transformed Craig might have for her at the end of the movie, and she responded spontaneously: "You are more than your grades. Love yourself for who you are."

Melinda started pushing herself less academically. Even though she still aimed for medical school in a couple of years, the teenager understood that she would feel less anxious and depressed and therefore be more successful if she took things a little easier while studying.

During another session, Melinda told me that she had just celebrated her 16 th birthday at her uncle's house and invited some friends. Now she felt much closer to these girls and planned to maintain contact with them at school and by visiting them at their homes.

Subsequently my client responded well to cognitive therapy and imagery work. Eventually she revealed that her parents had asked her whether therapy worked. She had answered them that she felt happier now. Because family dynamics continue to interfere with Melinda's wellbeing, family therapy will still be part of her treatment plan some time in the future.  

Theoretical Contemplations

It's Kind of a Funny Story has been criticized for its simplistic look at people with mental health issues who basically just need the right person to come along and cure them. Despite this critique, the movie helped Melinda because of the similarities she recognized between Craig's situation and her own.

The movie is based on the 2006 book of the same name by Ned Vizzini. He wrote the novel after he spent some time in a psychiatric hospital for depression when he was in his 20s. Recently the author stated his concern that this situation is faced by younger and younger people every year, as instances of clinical depression and anxiety disorders in youth continue to climb.

Adolescents are often overwhelmed and confused by the onslaught of complex emotions as they move toward adulthood. For these young clients, the therapeutic approach of the therapist needs to reflect their current life experience. Movies are part of most teenagers' life.

The young clients' responses to movies can help therapists understand their personalities, concerns, interests or their current problems. Therefore, Cinema Alchemy becomes a tool for assessment. In addition to the standard biographical questioning, young clients may be asked to name films they like and explain what they like about these movies.

Guidelines for Questions and Suggestions for Mature Adolescents

•  Did you see one or several characters who modeled behavior in certain parts of the film that you would like to emulate?

•  Did these character(s) develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like to gain as well?

•  Imagine yourself as one of these characters when you watch the movie. Imagine yourself with the mature or wise aspects of the character's personality.

•  How would your life look like if you had the character's qualities or capacities?

•  Imagine yourself using these qualities or capacities in your life.

 


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