Five Movies That Would Challenge Any Therapist

Updated on November 21, 2019
Mark Tulin profile image

Mark Tulin is an ex-therapist from Philadelphia who lives in California. He writes poetry about a variety of off-beat topics.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting is about a 20-year-old genius who is a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who also is a mathematical genius. He has a history of being abused by his step-father. He doesn’t know what to do with his life or with his mathematical gift. Robin Williams plays the therapist and Matt Damon is the client.

Therapeutic: The fact that the therapist appears just as smart and playful as the client creates a bonding between the two. The client feels that the therapist is in his corner and that he won’t abandon him. The client feels that the therapist will do what it takes to help him. The clinician is honest and frank, revealing his own pain and suffering with the client who feels a connection as a result.

Not Therapeutic: The therapist displays poor boundaries by getting physical with the client and allowing the client to get physical with him. The therapist allows the client to make him angry—although some of the therapist’s expressed anger has a therapeutic point and creates a bond. Choking your client, however, is unethical as well as illegal. Likewise, the client should not be allowed to get physical with the therapist. Also, the clinician seemed to be in need of a therapist himself. In getting help, he would have maintained better boundaries with his client as well as dealt with depression and the loss of his wife to cancer.

Perhaps the way the teenager in Equus felt when he was on a horse.  The Angel of the Citadel  by  Marino Marini at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the way the teenager in Equus felt when he was on a horse. The Angel of the Citadel by Marino Marini at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Equus (1977)

Equus is a difficult movie to watch because of all the graphic violent and sexual detail, so be warned. Richard Burton plays the therapist who sees a 17-year-old client (Peter Firth) that is obsessed with horses in both a passionate (sexual) and violent way. The client is forced to go to therapy because of his violent behavior toward horses; he gauged out the eyes of a stable full of horses.

Therapeutic: This is for the therapist who has a psychodynamic orientation--full of symbolism and a possible Oedipus Complex. This movie is chock-full of religious and sexual symbolism that is behind the client's bizarre relationship with horses. The horse becomes a symbol of the young patient’s need to be free and his pent up sexual energy and violent self-hatred, as well as the possible hatred of his parents. The therapist showed strength and skill in helping an oppositional and defiant teenager take therapy more seriously.

Not Therapeutic: The therapist allowed the patient to get to him. The patient also triggers a lot of countertransference (emotional reactivity) in the therapist, affecting him in an angry and depressed way. This case triggers the therapist to think about his own unhappy family life and his lack of passion for anything. This is another situation where the therapist should be in clinical supervision in order to handle the countertransference issues.

What Movie Therapist Would You Go To?

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Antwone Fisher (2002)

Antwone Fischer is about a young man (played by Derek Luke) in the Navy who has severe anger issues, resulting in some violent behaviors toward others. As a result of these violent behaviors, the client was mandated to attend therapy for anger management with a therapist/psychiatrist played by Denzel Washington. The client, as a child, lived in a foster home owned by a physically and emotionally abusive caregiver.

Therapeutic: The therapist appeared to be competent and sincere which creates a safe place for the client to deal with his trauma history. The therapist encouraged the use of poetry to deal with trauma. The therapist put the emphasis on the client to do the work, that is, to figure out ways to manage his anger and for him to do the things necessary to resolve past childhood trauma, like confronting the abuser and finding his parents. The therapist does a good job of helping the client to understand that it's not easy to overcome childhood abuse, but he is capable. The therapist helps the client to not run away from or avoid his problems, but to confront them head on.

Not Therapeutic: This therapist for the most part was flawless. The only areas where I would disagree with him was inviting the client over his house for dinner and not keeping appropriate boundaries, especially while the client is in treatment. Also, it is not always a good idea to confront an abuser, especially if it might stir up more anger and rage in an already violent person. My idea would be to invite his family into a therapy session so the client could have some support. Given the client's extensive abuse history, it seems like the client was too hasty in confronting the abuser, a process that sometimes takes years to achieve, and only if the client is emotionally and psychologically ready.

Positive Therapist Characteristics

  • Confidence
  • Sincerity
  • A real or authentic person
  • Good boundaries
  • Elicits hope for a positive outcome
  • Engages with the client
  • Good therapeutic timing (knows when to challenge, knows when to soften)
  • Provides a safe environment
  • Sense of humor
  • A good reputation

Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People is about a highly dysfunctional and fragile family. The identified patient is a teenager (played by Timothy Hutton) who had just come out of a psychiatric hospital for a suicide attempt. He was traumatized and full of self-hate for the death of his brother in a boating accident. He also felt responsible for the negative aftereffects of the accident on his mother and father. Judd Hirsch plays the therapist.

Therapeutic: The therapist has a calm and nurturing demeanor needed in treating a teenager with a serious trauma. The therapist had good assessment skills, assessed the origin of the trauma as well as gathered enough information to understand how the client's anxiety is being maintained at home. The therapist also interviewed the father to understand the family system and the marital dynamic. He saw the client twice per week, which was appropriate for this case due to the client’s fragile condition. The therapist was patient when he needed to be and pushed the client when the client needed to be challenged. The therapist displayed good timing with his interventions.

Not Therapeutic: In at least one session, the therapist did not emotionally close the client up before the client left the session. The client was agitated, in crisis mode and the therapist only said, “Time is up. Think about the question.” The therapist needed to help close up the client's emotions before the client left so he didn’t walk out of the office planning another suicide attempt. The therapist also did not strongly recommend that the family have family therapy or marital therapy. Perhaps if the parents would have gone to family or marital therapy some family issues would have been resolved and the parents would have stayed together.

The Horse Whisperer (1998)

The Horse Whisperer is about a horse trainer who not only helps to calm down a horse but an entire family. The film stars Robert Redford as the horse whisperer. He helps everyone, including the horse and the injured teenager (played by Scarlett Johansson) to heal from a very traumatic horse accident. Although not a family therapist, the horse whisperer performs like one.

Therapeutic: In this movie, the horse whisperer's reputation is a major plus for him in dealing with a difficult horse and a more difficult family. He uses his reputation as leverage in motivating the family to work in helping the horse to calm down. His reputation also helped him to maintain his authority and to be respected throughout the change process. Much like a good family therapist, he works with each family member equally and viewed the problem as not just being with the horse but a system problem or a family issue. The horse whisperer also displayed confidence in his ability and in his interventions that consequently enabled the family to feel confident and optimistic for a good outcome.

Not Therapeutic: The horse whisperer, at times, came off a little too harsh and aggressive with the horse and the family. He softened later as the family and the horse began to heal. He also developed feelings for the mother. If these romantic feelings had progressed, it would have tarnished the wonderful work that he did with the horse and the family. A real therapist would have consulted with another therapist about the countertransference. Also a real therapist would have possibly lost his therapy license if an affair would have ensued.

Questions & Answers


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      • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

        Mark Tulin 

        10 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

        Thanks, Tiffany. It seems like wherever I turn, there's always a therapist in a movie or a TV series. My least favorite was the therapist in the Sopranos.

      • tiffany delite profile image

        Tiffany Delite 

        10 months ago from Wichita, KS

        I have watched two of the movies on your list - Good Will Hunting and Antwoine Fisher. I love your analysis of the movies. Thanks for the article!

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        19 months ago

        Thank you.

      • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

        Mark Tulin 

        20 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

        Thanks, Robert. Great play on words. I had a lot of practice.

      • Robert Sacchi profile image

        Robert Sacchi 

        20 months ago

        I like the way you analyze the analyst so to speak.

      • Mark Tulin profile imageAUTHOR

        Mark Tulin 

        2 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

        Thanks Hari. A lot of food for thought here.

      • shprd74 profile image

        Hari Prasad S 

        2 years ago from Bangalore

        I have seen the first one, and loved it. Would love to watch the other ones. Stuff for the psyche. Mind matters. Great hub. Bookmarking this hub.

        - hari

      • gsidley profile image

        Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

        5 years ago from Lancashire, England

        Interesting hub. It hadn't registered with me that therapy sessions have been central to so many movies.

      • AliciaAH profile image

        Alicia Alarco-Hernandez 

        5 years ago from Old Bridge, New Jersey

        I really enjoyed learning about all the movies that gave different therapy approaches. It was very interesting.

      • Amy Choisser profile image

        Amy Casale Choisser 

        5 years ago from Melbourne Fl

        Nice list of movies. Thanks!


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