Therapeutic Movie Review
by Birgit Wolz Ph.D.
Director: Jim Sheridan
Producers: Arthur Lappin, Jim Sheridan
Screenwriters: Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan,
Stars: Samantha Morton, Paddy Considine,
Djimon Hounsou, Emma Bolger, Sarah Bolger
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2003
In America offers a unique and moving look
at a family’s devastating grief over the accidental
death of a son and brother, who also had a brain tumor. Stephanie
Ericsson wrote: ”Grief … is the ashes from which
the phoenix rises. … Grief will make a new person out
of you, if it doesn’t kill you in the making.”
Although In America demonstrates how intense, chaotic, contradictory,
and heart-wrenching emotions can be when we are grieving,
it also reveals that this nightmarish process can become transformative.
The movie also tells Jim Sherdian’s semi-autobiographical
story about the so-called “immigrant experience”
that is as much about family dynamics as about the struggle
to survive in unfamiliar surroundings. The story starts with
the Irish family sneaking across the Canadian border into
the US as illegal immigrants.
Johnny, the young father, wants to be an actor.
Since the death of his son, he has suppressed his emotions,
which threatens his career. The mother, Sarah, is an exhausted
and deeply grief-struck woman who swings back and forth between
depression and moments of elation while she tries to fulfill
her obligations as a mother, wife, and breadwinner. In spite
of their best efforts, the marriage is in danger of disintegration.
Their eleven-year-old daughter, Christy, shoots videos of
everything with her low-cost camcorder and serves as a voiceover
narrator of the story, writing letters to her diseased brother,
Frankie. Christy’s gregarious younger sister, Ariel,
who almost always has a smile in her face, demonstrates the
soulfulness of children whose wonder and imagination can carry
them through an ocean of difficulties.
It’s presumed that the family’s
move to America was meant as an escape from the tragedy back
in Ireland; yet, even with the change in scenery, both parents
struggle with overwhelming feelings of guilt. Sarah urges
her husband to use his talents as an actor for the kids’
sake: ”Make believe you’re happy!” But Christy
breaks through the denial as a sounding board and unforgiving
judge: “I’ve been carrying this family on my back
for over a year.” Eventually, looking for a means to
end the pain, Sarah gets pregnant. But their challenges continue
when the doctor tells them that there could be life-threatening
complications with the birth.
The family lives in a New York City tenement
building, where they are confronted with racism and drug addiction.
There is one door, which has the words KEEP AWAY painted on
in big orange letters. Here lives, as called by the girls,
“a man who screams” because his anguish sometimes
echoes up the stairs. The girls’ innocence and implicit
faith in others allows them to approach this gentle giant,
Mateo, without fear, rather than to cower away from him like
other tenants. Later, when he joins them for dinner, Ariel
says “You’re magic.” And she is right with
her intuitive response.
Everything shifts when Mateo and Johnny face
each other in anger and unexpected insights are triggered.
Mateo continues to be the catalyst for emotional changes in
the family and for different ways of seeing. Especially in
the final episode the movie boosts the human spirit and suggests
that small miracles do exist.
Movies like In America, used as an adjunct
to grief therapy, can serve as a catalyst for suppressed emotions.
Sometimes tears flow over a sentimental film but not in real
life. Emotional release can lift clients’ spirits for
a while. Energy that was drained by depression can reemerge,
at least temporarily. With therapeutic guidance this “break”
frequently allows clients to open up to the grieving process
or explore the issues that have inhibited healthy mourning.
They may also feel less alone in their pain. Film characters
often serve as either negative or positive models for the
grieving process. Their story can also help clients recognize
the transformational potential in grief.
My 40 year old client, Kevin, had lost his
sickly younger sister, Kate, to heart failure when they were
children. Because he feared that peers would make fun of him,
he never cried. Although his parents had told him that Kate’s
death was not his fault because she suffered from an incurable
heart condition, Kevin felt responsible. He believed: “I
shouldn’t have encouraged her to play with me the day
before she died”. Since then, every year around the
anniversary of her death Kevin felt depressed. When he suspected
that there might be some unresolved grief, he entered therapy.
Our work progressed well. However, the most
significant breakthrough happened after Kevin watched In America.
As he recognized the family’s pain in the film, tears
started flowing for the first time. In our next session he
told me that these were his “un-cried” tears over
the loss of little Kate. More grief surfaced during the following
weeks. First Kevin was afraid that “something must be
wrong with me that I felt so sad”. With the help of
some guiding questions (see below) Kevin started to accept
his mourning as a healing process and felt more normal. He
experienced the movie characters like a support group. Subsequently
we worked with his guilt going back and forth between his
inner experience and observing the movie characters. Pretty
soon Kevin found peace around his loss and even felt inspired
to volunteer in a children’s hospital.Guidelines for
work with clients
Guidelines for Questions
Before the movie:
• If the movie elicits emotions,
let yourself feel them and cry as much as you like.
Ask clients to notice …
• how Johnny’s and Sarah’s negative, self-defeating
beliefs and their resistance to grief slowly change
• how they develop a new sense of self, compassion,
and purpose when they finally give themselves permission to
• the characters take small acts of courage in spite
• their determination and endurance helps them become
After the movie:
• How do you feel about the character’s
experience of grief and guilt in relation to your own?
• What did you see in the film that reminds you of your
own inner and outer resources?
• Have you discovered transformational gifts of grief
after experiencing a loss before, similar to the family in
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