MOVIE THERAPY By Kay Allen, LPC
RLPG’s “Movie Therapy” blog is a review of a film that has a “therapeutic” message. My reviews will highlight psychological dynamics in the characters. The film can be viewed by the reader, and if emotional stuff hits home, therapy may be considered to assist readers in working through their own issues.
“Rachel Getting Married” is one of those films that studies the human condition. It zooms in on one family as it prepares for a wedding and highlights issues of substance abuse, family trauma, dysfunctional family patterns, divorce, bulimia, and unresolved grief.
This is an amazing film. Ann Hathaway plays the main character—a twenty something, doe-eyed, rough-around-the-edges substance abuser—in and out of rehabs and psychiatric hospitals since age sixteen. This is not the glamorous Ann shining through her translucent skin for two hours. Hathaway provides a critically acclaimed performance of a woman inwardly tortured while outwardly playing the role of a “spoiler” in her family. The movie opens with Ann being picked up from her most recent drug rehab and whisked away by her refined, wealthy father and step-mother in a Volvo station wagon. They are off to the wedding preparations at their home (picture white house with expansive porch—like something out of “Southern Living”).
We immediately realize that Ann is a loose cannon, a mouth without a filter, as she greets her sister Rachel abuzz amongst a bevy of chirpy bridesmaids. She comments on Rachel’s thinness and speculates that her bulimia has returned. The bridesmaids and Rachel are aghast. The spoiler has returned.
There are many such moments in the film. One of my favorites is the wedding rehearsal dinner. It is a scene that rolls on and on in celebration, as many of the wedding scenes do. The director has a way of making you feel not like the audience viewer but one of the guests, sitting together at one large table, caught in the magical flow of the toasts. Each toast is a specially wrapped verbal gift to the couple-to-be, moments of grace. The magic is disrupted by Hathaway’s toast as she begins with “I am Poobah the destroyer and your harbinger of doom for the evening.” She then follows with a toast that focuses on her substance abuse and her needs to make amends. She appears to be working one of the 12 steps—something more appropriate for an AA meeting. The guests are aghast, again, and so it goes through the movie.
There are moments that we see glimpses into Hathaway’s real pain. The AA meeting she attends is just such a moment. In just a ten minute sequence the writer/director capture the raw healing power of AA, as members disclose feelings and events in their lives that make you feel punched in the gut. For beyond the dynamics we have already seen in the film—Ann’s substance abuse history, her role as family spoiler, her parents’ divorce, conflict with her sister, her sister’s eating disorder history—there is something else. We learn that while Ann was under the influence of Percocet at age sixteen, she was involved in a car crash while babysitting her baby brother. His death, and the family’s unresolved grief issues, are the underlying emotional currents swirling beneath all their interactions.
With this information in mind, we can try to make sense of the characters. The father, a man whose face is generous with love, repeatedly tries to mend the rift between his two daughters, who fight about the past and who compete for his attention. At one point he crushes both of their heads to his chest, as if he were trying to push both heads into the small place where his heart lodges: “I just wish we could all get a…” His face can dissolve from a Buddha-like benevolence into a total look of ineffectiveness. He has not been effective in “fixing” this mess. His baby boy is dead, his oldest daughter spends her life in and out of rehabs and hospitals, his marriage did not survive the death and “how” it happened, the mother of his children has fled the mess and has little contact, and his two daughters still battle over what they can’t really speak about. Sister Rachel is headed for a training program to become a psychologist (the audience feels she may already have received adequate education in this dysfunctional family). We wonder if Rachel’s bulimia had been her maladaptive pattern of dealing with feelings she just couldn’t bear—stuffing them, numbing them, vomiting them up. She pitches back and forth between kindness and resentment for Hathaway: “Everything has revolved around her disease…and now everything is going to revolve around her recovery.” Rachel will probably specialize in addictions when she becomes a psychologist. She will refer families to Al-Anon.
And Hathaway. Is she self punishing as she plays the role of family spoiler over and over? She feels she has ruined everything: “I am sorry…for what…for everything.” Is she self-punishing for herself and for her family who could benefit from someone to blame? Does she save them this discomfort by being a scapegoat? She breaks through this pattern of sacrifice in one very raw scene with her mother: “Why did you leave me in charge of him….You knew what I was….What were you thinking….Why would you leave a drug addict to watch your son.” Mother responds with “I asked you to watch him—I didn’t ask you to kill him” and immediately slugs her baby girl in the face.
The film juxtaposes moments of high celebration with the wedding theme against the lows of painful, family process discussions of the past—cycling between one and another—always taking us with them. The script can be poetry: “The measure of a great life is not how well you are loved…but how well you have loved others” (Rachel’s wedding vows to her husband). And therapy: (Hathaway) “I can’t forgive myself…and I don’t want to right now…and I don’t believe in a God that would forgive me…..except when I’m sober.” Grace.