Synopsis: An analysis of a variety of psychological concepts employed in film from Trauma and Delusions to Stigmas and the Psychological distress experienced by one’s support system.
Introduction: Film has always been an evocative way to introduce huge swathes of people to psychological concepts that require their own space in colloquial discourse. It encourages empathy among audience members and help them live vicariously through the characters on the screen, many of whom would have been based on real-life individuals. Over the years, the approach to psychology in films has moved from helping the filmmakers engage the audiences’ collective psyche and into showing the lived experiences of people with psychological disorders. An effective medium of communication which has grown to contribute greatly to societal discourse on topics of mental health, what it means to suffer from psychological disorders, and the social approach to victims of mental illness; film has platformed several stories and experiences like no other medium can.
This essay looks at five movies, some with overarching themes of psychology and some with themes that run as undercurrents to the plot of the film. I delve into an analysis of how a variety of psychological concepts are employed and treated in these movies, consequently providing a critique of each of these films approach to said psychological concepts.
- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)- Trauma, Grief, Depression, Eating disorder, Support systems, Stigmas and Social harassment.
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a film showcasing a complex array of psychological themes from coping with grief to social pressures and the psychological toll that consumes a persons support system. Gilbert, played by Johnny Depp, works at a grocery store to support his family- his seemingly depressed mother who suffers from an eating disorder, his mentally disabled younger brother and two sisters. His mother, Bonnie Grape suffers from an eating disorder as well as what seems to be severe depression, both chronic illnesses that swallowed her whole after her husband took his own life in the basement of their home. Bonnie’s distress, trauma and grief consequently leaves her unable to leave the house for seven years, binge eating throughout the day and dissociating in front of the television in order to cope.
Arnie’s mental illness causes him to climb the towns water tanks every chance he gets, agitating the local police department and providing entertainment to the unsympathetic townspeople. Eating disorders, depression, developmental disorders and atypical behaviour are still heavily stigmatized and the sight of the seemingly dysfunctional Grape family provides entertainment to the people of Endora, which is once step too close to being a ghost town. The townspeople offer no support to the suffering Grape, often mocking them in public. When Arnie climbs the water tower for the third time in a week, the police officers arrest him and take him into custody agitating Bonnie who finally leaves the house after seven years to retrieve him. The town gathers into a crowd as the Grape family leaves the station kids gaping, teenagers laughing and adults taking pictures of Bonnie as they make their way to the car.
The judgement and harassment faced by Bonnie and Arnie contributed greatly to Bonnie’s dangerously unhealth state showing how supportive friends and family and safe societal atmospheres can make a huge difference in the life of the victims of mental illness.
The movie also traces the contours of psychological concepts such as senses of self and identity. Gilbert, the breadwinner and caretaker of his family, isn’t able to answer the question, ‘What do you want ?’. When he does manage to find the words to articulate his desires, Gilbert only lists the things he wants for each of his family members. ‘I want a new brain for Arnie’ was one of the most evocative lines in the movie, throwing light not only on Arnie’s perceived half-baked life but also the psychological torment experienced by his support system. A characteristic feature that makes this film so unique is the emphasis it places on the caretakers of those ravaged by mental illness, the patience cultivated by them and their grave mistakes as well.
2. Submarine (2010) – Adolescent psychology, Depression and Delusions.
Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut is a ‘coming-of-age’ film that tells the tale of Oliver Tate a 15-year-old boy from Wales. An awkward sort of outlier, Tate’s character is an interesting one with priorities that range from losing his virginity to fixing his parents marriage.
Oliver displays clear signs of teenage angst explaining that he finds that the only way to get through life is to imagine himself ‘in and entirely disconnected reality’, he dissociates routinely imagining how people would react to his death creating a short film in his head with all his classmates grieving his departure dramatically. The whole film consequently plays like a never-ending delusion depicting the way Oliver would want to see his life cinematically portrayed.
Ayoade employs two concepts known in adolescent development psychology, namely: The personal fable and invisible audience belief. Personal fable refers to the adolescent belief that they compared to all others are somehow unique, heroic and destined for fame and fortune. In the film, Oliver’s narration of his ‘death delusion’ prompts the viewer to adopt the notion that Oliver views himself as almost God-like, a celebrity who has vigils all over the country and who’s death shook Wales as a whole. He imagines being filmed and constantly says, ‘I wish my life were a movie’ and ‘I constantly rehearse the end scene’ when speaking in reference to the sequence of events that comprise his life at that moment. The invisible audience is a conception that has adolescents convinced that they are the focus of everyone’s attention and concern. The entire movie runs on this perception and the viewers of this film comprise the audience that Oliver Tate constantly imagines.
The movie also dabbles in relationship psychology as it traces the complexities and complications of marriage and young love. His parent’s marriage is in shambles and he attempts to save it by impersonating his father to write letters to his mother, encouraging the two to communicate and spy on his mother who he thinks is having an affair.
The film also covers more severe psychological themes such as mental illness, more specifically bouts of depression something Lloyd Tate, Oliver’s father, often suffers from. Towards the end of the movie, Oliver begins to emulate the depressive behaviour of his father, drinking out of the same mug and wearing the same robe as he stares lifelessly into the void. The film is overall a spectacular depiction of sensitive issues including teenage angst, life-threatening tumours and crumbling marriages. It treats dark subjects such as death with such delicacy that one can only expect from Ayoade, an expert in dry humour and delivery.
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006)– Drug addiction, Narcissistic tendencies, suicidal attempts, childhood & adolescent troubles, self-image and social norms.
Directed by couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine packages psychological dysfunction in a controversially unique way. This dark comedy presents drug addiction, narcissistic tendencies, teenage angst, suicide attempts and self-image in a way that engages the audience in a subtle yet unsettling manner. The film follows the anything- but- peaceful road trip of the Hoover family as they rush to the child beauty pageant that Olive, the youngest, so desperately wants to partake in.
Each character grapples with a different psychological torture and can only be described the same matter-of-fact way their struggles are portrayed in the film : Grandpa has a drug addiction and ends up dying from an overdose, his seven year old granddaughter Olive, who reports his lifeless body to her parents, struggles with body image and compares herself to her pageant competitors, her brother Dwayne hates everyone and basks in the comfort of his sadness, reading Nietzsche and refusing to speak, his uncle Frank joins the family on the road trip having attempted suicide, his sister Sheryl struggles to keep the family sane and her husband Richard Hoover who is obsessed with winning struggles to make ends meet and be the winner he so desperately wants to be.
In spite of this watered-down depiction of complex mental illnesses and psychological distress, the movie does a great job at bringing these stigmatized concepts to the table. One of the earliest scenes which involves Uncle Frank, very frankly, telling his seven-year-old niece why he attempted suicide, sets the tone for the rest of the movie which continues to treat sensitive subjects in a darkly humorous manner, speaking to the catharsis of making light of one’s own trauma.
The film brings a variety of psychological concepts to the table, conjuring a set-up rife with mental health problems and multi-layered characters that psychology and film students can meticulously disseminate. Richard Hoover, exhibits narcissistic tendencies, injecting his advice and opinions into every situation, infuriating Sheryl and Frank both. He projects his own shortcomings onto his family and even shamelessly pushes his seven-year-old daughter into being self-conscious of her body. The movie also covers alienation and the disillusionment caused by The American Dream. Its directors manage to provoke the audience into feeling a great deal of sympathy for this family which simply can’t seem to do anything right. Dwayne submerges himself in nihilism, caring only about his dream to be a jet pilot, a dream that vaporises in front of his eyes in a millisecond.
Frank’s depression and suicide attempt acts as an undercurrent and doesn’t seem to define him as the film moves along, his character develops layers as the audience learns more about his intellect and life. Dwayne and the Grand-father are also shown to suffer from psychological distress with the latter developing a fatal drug addiction.
Little Miss Sunshine is a humorous yet unsettling film that prompts discourse on a variety of topics from the absurdity of children’s beauty pageants to notions of success within a capitalist system, from body image struggles in children to conversing with them about suicide. It is a deeply evocative film that shines light on psychological distress and disorders without allowing them to take the stage as they often do within the minds of their victims.
- Short Term Twelve (2013)- Trauma, Abuse, Coping mechanisms and Catharsis.
Written and directed by Dustin Daniel Cretton, Short term 12 is a film set in a temporary care-unit for ‘at-risk’ teens. This movie is a psychological one entirely, its implicit mention of a wide variety of psychological issues speaking to the insurmountable trauma experienced by these characters. Short term 12 dives face first into the complexity of trust issues, intimacy issues, the psychology of physical and emotional vulnerability, suicidal thoughts and attempts, abuse, abandonment, coping mechanisms and progress.
The horrific experiences of abuse, neglect and harassment of these youth combined with their developing adolescent combination is a lethal combination that calls for utmost care and delicacy. Each character copes with the torment they have experienced in different ways: Marcus finds an outlet in rapping; Sammy finds comfort in his toys and Jayden in sketching and writing stories.
Still, the movie successfully carves out the slivers of light that permeate the lives of those dejected by their circumstance through heart-warming scenes such as the one where all the kids make birthday cards for Jayden. The authentic and raw portrayal of Grace’s struggle to grapple with her past and the consequent torment it has imposed on her relationship is applaudable. The film is able to capture the impossibility of navigating trauma and its symptoms, the difficulty of accepting ones’ past and the frustrating but frankly uncontrollable consequences it has one a victim’s relationships. The discomfort and unsettling feeling caused by several scenes in the film are necessary reality checks for those who aren’t aware of the horrific experiences that make up the reality of several American
The movie does a great job at exposing the audience to a wide variety of psychological themes in the same disorganised manner as they manifest in real life but it has its shortcomings as well. The film unravels a characters unfavourable (to say the least) backstory and, through vague dialogue and symbolic manifestations of their experiences, forces them into a therapeutic confrontation with their past and consequent catharsis. Encouraging help seeking behaviours among those who have suffered repeatedly throughout their childhood is much harder in real life than as depicted on the screen. The rushed sequence of events that makes up the ending of the movie leaves the audience wondering if the people Cretton based this story on were as lucky to have the happy endings as their on-screen counterparts.
- The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) – Trauma, Grief, Support systems and Sense of self.
A cinematic masterpiece with a heart-warming narrative and a star-studded cast, The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of Zak, a 22-year-old with down syndrome who escapes the nursing home the state has placed him in after his family abandoned him. Zak who’s ultimate goal is to become a wrestling champion, journeys through North Carolina with his new friend Tyler as the two try to reach Arden where Zak’s hero ‘The Salt Water Redneck’ runs a wrestling camp.
The film covers a wide variety of psychological concepts from intellectual disabilities to dealing with trauma and grief. It disseminates the social treatment of people with down syndrome by depicting the harassment they undergo as well as the coddling they experience at the hands of their caregivers who often underestimate them and consequently exhibit overprotective behaviour that limits them reaching their true potential. Finally, the movie touches on themes of family and the importance of a loving and caring support system.
The movie challenges stereotypes and perceptions of people with disabilities, their capabilities and their need for personhood. It also approaches how both neurotypical and neurodivergent people experience and grapple with trauma. Zak deals with being abandoned and placed in a nursing home he knows he doesn’t belong in, while Tyler deals with the loss of his brother who died in Tyler’s car with him behind the wheel, Eleanor also is shown, although briefly, grieving with the death of her husband.
One of the most raw and evocative scenes in the movie delves into ideas of self-worth. As they lay in front of a fire, camping on the beach, Zak responds to Tyler statement that Zak’s a hero, saying, “I can’t be a hero, I’m a down syndrome.” Zak’s belief in himself or lack thereof was reinforced by coaches and teachers, and even caregivers who discouraged his ambitions and dreams. The movie makes political comments on primarily psychological questions regarding a disabled individual’s right to self-determination. It directly calls out the underestimation and overprotection of those who are not given the freedom to attempt and achieve some variation of independence, a feat most are capable of doing.
The character Zak being built around Zack Gottsagen’s personality and passion also impacts the authenticity of the film which does a great job in highlighting the reality of psychological impairments and the behavioural manifestations of it, something that successfully stabs at the stigmas associated with disorders like down syndrome. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, The Peanut Butter Falcon does an impeccable job of giving a voice to people with down syndrome, showcasing their ambition, drive and capabilities.
Looking at the film through a psychological lens is simple when a viewer begins to ask questions about the characters, their backgrounds, and the social commentary made by the filmmakers. Psychology is not always center stage in films, often lurking backstage but nevertheless pulling the strings. Observing the systems that govern the way the characters think, feel, and behave allows one to look deeper into the psychology of a film. This could be the social environment of a certain town, or the political atmosphere of a city or even the value systems of a family.
Although largely fictitious these movies help audiences understand how psychological disorders and their treatment by professionals and society as a whole, manifest in real life. Analyzing films through a psychological lens is imperative if you want to gain a comprehensive understanding about the myriad of social, political and economic factors that determine the conditions in which a person’s psyche exists. The film thus becomes the most effective medium capable of communicating a plethora of overarching factors that determine how a person’s mental illness or distress manifests. Oftentimes, films will make political and social comments on how psychological disorders are treated in society: The Peanut Butter Falcon, Little Miss Sunshine, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape do a great job of this.
Watching movies like Little Miss Sunshine, Short Term 12 and The Peanut Butter Falcon can deepen ones understanding not only about psychology but society as well. These movies have helped me gain a holistic understanding of how psychology operated in society and societies’ consequent treatment of these individuals. I find that engaging with a movie with psychological themes is a very humbling experience, that always opens your eyes no matter how qualified or well-read you are in psychology.
Also Read: How to get a psychology degree online