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Movie Therapy: 5 Great Movies, 5 Powerful Life Lessons

Updated on December 20, 2014

Don’t Take It Personally

Whenever someone says “don’t take it personally,” I think of Woody Allen’s movie, Play It Again, Sam (1972), in which the protagonist's wife of two years says: “I can’t stand the marriage. I don’t find you any fun. I feel you suffocate me. I don’t feel any rapport with you, and I don’t dig you physically. Oh, for God’s sake, Allan, don’t take it personal.”

How can he not take it all personally? He can’t. That’s why it’s so funny! But wait. What if it were possible to not take things personally? What if it were possible to let bad news brush off you like water off a duck’s back? How great would that be? It would be awesome! It would take all negativity away and make a non-issue out of a bad event. If you could just say, “meh” and move on, wouldn’t you feel a lot better, a lot faster? Yes. Yes, you would.

In the movie, Woody Allen’s character is a neurotic depressive, which is not the model that you want to follow, and obviously things don’t go well for him. But a re-imagined story, with a character that could objectively accept that some relationships don’t work out and sometimes everyone is better off going their separate ways might be more therapeutic. Are there such films? Yes. Yes, there are. Case in point: High Fidelity (2000), in which a selfish, insecure and immature man, Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack), tracks down five previous ex-girlfriends to find answers to his relationship problems and learns this Life Lesson:

If you want to have a good relationship with someone, then don’t hold back. Give it all you’ve got.

Here is Rob in his own words: “I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and — I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open. And that’s suicide, by tiny, tiny increments.”

The Collected Wisdom of Movies

So yes, there are movies that show us how to not take things personally and how to move on. The beauty of movies is that they model behavior, they allow us to experience another person’s life, live their frame of reference, see their point of view. It even goes further than this because movies are the embodiment of our collective knowledge. The collaborative nature of making and producing movies means that when there is a message expressed, it is likely upheld by multiple people who believe others should hear it.

Clearly then, there is a lot of wisdom to be learned from watching movies. If you think about all the resources, all the money, all the people, the heart, sweat and tears, the energy, all the thought that needs go into making a feature length film, you must also seriously consider what the message is in a film. Why go through such a public medium with the hopes of reaching an audience of millions, if the creators, the auteurs, didn’t have something significant or valuable to say? Yes, some movies are just mindless entertainment, but even these reveal some truths about ourselves and our lives.

Meanwhile, great movies leave you thinking about ideas and beliefs. While it is possible that they did not set out to transfer a thought, they nevertheless gave us a product of the mind for the mind. And although our tendency to look for meaning where there isn’t any may get the best of us frequently, sometimes it is infinitely clear that we are meant to learn something from watching a movie. After all, what’s easier than learning by watching? We humans are very good at that.


Movies Give Us Insight Into Ourselves

Indeed, we are a social species that has used storytelling as a means to connect to one other, to teach and learn from each other, since before the beginning of civilization. The prehistoric cave paintings that date back 40,000 years in Spain (El Castillo) and 30,000 in France (Chauvet) are the progenitors of modern movies. Why did our ancient ancestors immortalize images of large wild animals such as horses and bison, and imprint human hands on the walls of caves? Could the reason be the same one that drives filmmakers to immortalize moving images on the screen? Like the cave paintings, I think movies are trying to teach us something. In fact, I think movies are a treasure trove of insight into the very core of human existence.

These insights are the Life Lessons that I am chronicling on my blog: because I consider film criticism to be a public service profession. I think a good film critic is a reliable guidepost that informs of wondrous treats that await in one direction and horrible pitfalls to avoid in another. So it is really not much of a stretch to augment the public service aspect a little by pointing people toward movies that are not only well made and entertaining, but also insightful in a way that they could apply to their own lives and be the richer for it.

The following are 5 that I think are truly valuable and worth deep and serious consideration:

1) Life Lesson:

People find happiness when they are: engaging in play, having new experiences, feeling connected to a community through friends and family, doing things that are meaningful, and appreciating what they have.

-- From the documentary Happy (2011) by director Roko Belic about the latest research studies on happiness. Experts discuss their findings while everyday people talk about their experiences.

Since the best tool we have is science, and since we all strive to be happy, watching this film is highly instructive. Integrating what you can from it -- whether it is becoming more physically active or being more grateful for your life -- will most likely bring you more happiness. That’s a nice return for a 76 minute investment of your time.

2) Life Lesson:

There is no point in feeling regret about your past. If you had a chance to go back in time, you would probably make the same choices again. If you changed your past, you may not have the great things you have now.

-- From the fantasy Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) directed by Francis Ford Coppola about a middle-aged housewife, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), who is facing a divorce from her husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage), but gets a chance to relive her past and change it all -- which also means losing her children.

Playing the “if only” game, i.e. “if only I had left 5 minutes earlier, I wouldn’t have missed my flight,” is a sure way to lower your happiness. This is regret, an emotion you really don’t need to have. What’s the point? You know the old Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”? Well, anything that happened in the past constitutes things that you cannot change, so move on.

3) Life Lesson:

Do not take loved-ones for granted. Let them know you love them.

-- From the comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) directed by P.J. Hogan about Jules (Julia Roberts), a professional single woman who has difficulty maintaining romantic relationships and loses the man she loves, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), because she cannot express her true feelings.

Recognizing that someone loves and cares about you is actually an expression of your ability to feel gratitude. As mentioned earlier, being grateful for what you have is a key way of obtaining happiness. Appreciating those who care for you, who are concerned for you, who are interested in your life, is the first step in feeling grateful for them. Letting them know that you appreciate them is the final step, one that will allow you to bring happiness to others.


4) Life Lesson:

Let go of old resentments: you’ll feel better.

-- From the comedy Moonstruck (1987) directed by Norman Jewison about Loretta Castorini (Cher), a widow who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage), when she invites him to her wedding.

The funny thing about resentment is that you do it to yourself, and it’s all negative. Resentment re-injures old wounds, makes you angry and self-righteous, robs you of perspective, and prevents you from moving on. So how do you let go of old resentments? By realizing that you are choosing to be “right” over being happy. This is where you need to accept that life sometimes is harsh and cruel, but you don’t have to keep reliving hurt and trauma. You can just let it go, start fresh, and look for ways to make life easier and more enjoyable for yourself and those around you.

5) Life Lesson:

Love yourself enough to be the person you want to become.

-- From the documentary I Ain’t Scared of You: A Tribute to Bernie Mac (2011) directed by Robert Small about comedian Bernie Mac, a man who embodied rugged individualism and achieved the quintessential American Dream despite numerous obstacles and personal tragedies.

When people find success after numerous setbacks, it’s a powerful reminder that instead of dwelling on negative emotions, you can change them to positive ones. You *can* look on the bright side of life and be optimistic. Feeling positive about the future and about yourself helps you move forward, while feeling negative holds you back. Respecting yourself, honoring yourself, treating yourself with dignity are all ways of “loving yourself” and are necessary for achieving prolonged success, which inevitably means overcoming adversity and misfortune. In other words, if you have set a goal for yourself, make sure that you love yourself as if you have already achieved it.

At Least You'll Be Entertained

The above illustrates that there are great movies with characters and stories that are worth emulating, and with valuable lessons that can help you feel more joy. Of course reading about Life Lessons is different from applying Life Lessons. We’ve all received advice. Some we have ignored, some has proven valuable, and others we followed only to be disappointed. The same is probably true about advice from movies. But the nice thing about watching movies is that even if you don’t agree with or see the message, you’ll at least be entertained. And that is joy you can count on.

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© 2014 moviewise


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