Movies as Psychotherapy: Find Your Way Home with Where the Wild Things Are
Movies as Psychotherapy
by Keith Miller, LICSW
Provider of psychotherapy in Washington DC
By many standards, Where the Wild Things Are is a movie made for kids. By other standards, it’s better viewed in psychotherapy than in a theater. After all, there are wild rumpuses, dirt-clod fights, and stray animals. It is packed with kid-level play and fuzzy creatures that look like so many huggable characters at your favorite adventure park. But don’t rush your under-10-year-old out to the cinema without some forethought. The film has themes of strong, complex emotions that could be confusing to little ones and make them need psychotherapy. (This adult would have liked to see a PG-13 rating because of that.)
Psychotherapy Moment #1: The wild island as metaphor for unconscious in psychotherapy
Spike Jonze as director certainly fills the creative gaps of the under-400-word children’s book by Maurice Sendak (1963). As you would expect from something that takes five minutes to read, the book is sparse on complexity and big on visual appeal. In some ways, the movie seems to keep this simplicity. The creatures on Max’s island, the Wild Things, are fascinating, the way they must appear to children who see them in the book. They are some kind of furry animals with horns and unusual powers, but they walk on two feet-just like actors in suits! (You could analyze these dreams for a while in psychotherapy).
Psychotherapy Moment #2: Humor is covering up something tender in psychotherapy
The film develops the story of the young boy, Max, and his imagined island where he becomes king of the Wild Things. The scenes, and occasional wobbly camera work, follow the action the way a kid would follow it. It feels like you’re on the adventure too. (But remember, you’re really just sitting in psychotherapy.)
Part of the adventure is that you never know which lines of dialogue are significant and which are just throwaway humor cut from similar cloth as The Simpsons or The Office. This all has the effect of downplaying the inherent complexity of the two plots, Max the boy and Max the boy in his wolf pajamas. There’s no time to ponder the unconscious entanglements of the nested plots because you are too busy witnessing the rambunctious play of a pre-adolescent that involves lots of physical throwing and destruction, all short-sighted, that usually ends with tears. But there’s no mom, no empathetic box of tissues nearby like in the psychotherapy office.
Then there’s Max Records, who plays the character that shares his first name. His authentic portrayal of this little boy is alone enough to keep you fixed on the meandering path of his fantasy, even when it forces you to make connections with little or no support from context or dialogue. This is where your years of psychotherapy analysis pay off! When Max swings from adoration of his mother to rage in the introduction you can feel it about to happen as though it’s happening in your kitchen or nearest psychotherapy office!
Psychotherapy Moment #3: Conquering fear means building a relationship with fear in psychotherapy
Arriving in the fantasy world where Max becomes King of the Wild Things it looked like he would learn to tame the beasts and thereby sooth his own wild emotions. The story moves in this direction but isn’t that simple. This would have been the Disney way to sprinkle magic on the scary parts and keep kids in the audience from having nightmares or needing to be rushed into child psychotherapy.
But spike Jonze is not Disney. Instead we witness a very realistic treatment of emotions. In real life, as it is where the Wild Things are, leading one’s internal drives and directing the currents of emotion isn’t done by wishful thinking alone (cue the cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy manual). Max wants this to be so. Just when his charm and enthusiasm seem to succeed at forging an alliance with his mother or the family of Wild Things, fear and mistrust rupture the connection and his world is flooded with hurt and volatility. Adults can’t put on their wolf pajamas and escape to the forest but it’s not uncommon for the most “balanced” of people to do just that in their own ways – as I get to hear about all the time in psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy Moment #4: Redemption is possible when you accept reality psychotherapy
In the end, imagination and fantasy serve a valuable and redeeming role for Max. Clearly more than just providing him with a quick escape, his imagination ends up wrestling with the same tangle of anger and vulnerability as his real life but within safer confines. The tense moment, in his real life, when Max stands on the table and commands his mother to “Feed me, woman,” becomes the tense moment, on his fantasy island, when his closest friend among the Wild Things nearly eats him. (No doubt his Mom had to talk about this little episode with in her psychotherapy). Max finds a way, despite–or perhaps because of–his feelings, to see the good in the Wild Things, and by doing so finds the good in himself.
That was all he needed to find his way back home. And that is what you get doing psychotherapy at the movies.
Questions to consider before starting psychotherapy?
1.) How long do you think you will need psychotherapy?
2.) Is psychotherapy something you use to really make changes or just get emotional support?
3.) How will you know if you are ready to stop psychotherapy? (Have you had experience with this in psychotherapy?)
4.) What are the qualities you are looking for in a provider of psychotherapy?
5.) How will you know if you are a good fit with the person providing psychotherapy?
6.) What are your goals for psychotherapy? Will you define psychotherapy goals or leave it to the therapist?
7.) Would you consider conjoint psychotherapy (psychotherapy with your partner)?
8.) Are you looking for a particular type of psychotherapy?
9.) Will you tell others that you are doing psychotherapy?
10.) How will you monitor your progress in psychotherapy? Will you consider journaling after psychotherapy sessions?