Mar 31

“Big Little Lies”: Domestic Violence Therapy

The current and highly rated HBO comedy/drama mini-series Big Little Lies, a suburban murder mystery starring such notables as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård, and Adam Scott, is based on Liane Moriarty‘s 2014 bestselling novel.

One way the TV series differs from the book is that creator David E. Kelley has placed more emphasis on a certain delicate and challenging situation being addressed in therapy. According to Carolyn L. Todd, Refinery29, the series in this way helps “make a very unlikable character more sympathetic.”

That character is Celeste (Kidman), an abused spouse. Although she first enters therapy with husband Perry (Skarsgård), this changes when he has to go out of town.

But in the book, Celeste sees the therapist alone from the get-go. Having Perry participate in therapy makes him seem like a better guy: he’s a domestic abuser, yes, but he knows he has a problem and is willing to work on it. It indicates he knows his behavior is unacceptable and wants to change. Celeste and Perry seem like more of a team. Plus, the tense dynamic of the therapy sessions is riveting, as is watching the pair negotiate in the moment how much truth about their marriage they want to share with the counselor.

Although therapists on TV are often portrayed sketchily or negatively or unfairly, there’s a general consensus that this isn’t so in Big Little Lies:

Caitlin Flynn, Bustle: “Therapy isn’t often depicted on TV and, when it is, the scenes tend to be brief and lack depth. The therapy sessions on Big Little Lies don’t just break that mold — they shatter it.”

Maria Elena Fernandez, Vulture: “Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert) and Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård) are so realistic they’re draining.”

Melissa Dahl, The Cut: “And you know who else loves the therapist on Big Little Lies? Actual therapists.” Some of the highlighted factors: the realism, Dr. Reisman’s apparently advanced knowledge regarding domestic abuse, and her astute ability to pick up on subtle cues from the client.

Regarding the advisability of seeing Celeste alone considering that it was supposed to be marital therapy, it’s the existence of domestic violence that allows for this. For the optimal care of the victim, an experienced therapist is aware of the need to further assess the circumstances without the direct participation of the abuser.

Bustle expands on how the therapy in Big Little Lies proceeds:

It was only when Celeste began seeing Dr. Reisman on her own that she very, very slowly began to shed her facade. These scenes hit the nail on the head because Dr. Reisman successfully strikes a balance between needling the truth of Celeste without pushing her too hard, which could cause her to shut down and never come to another appointment. The scenes are lengthy, which allows Big Little Lies to flesh out what therapy really looks like — especially for abuse victims. Celeste can’t bear to speak the truth out loud, and her strongest moments in these scenes are conveyed through facial expressions, body language, and eye contact.

May 08

“What Maisie Knew” Will Require Some Therapy Someday

What Maisie Knew is a film adaptation of a Henry James novel updated to a contemporary setting. Neither mothers nor fathers, however, are at all idealized.

A Very Brief Summary of What Maisie Knew

From the eyes of a six-year-old girl, Maisie’s parents’ relationship disintegrates. They remarry, they inappropriately place her in the middle of their issues, they leave most of the subsequent caretaking to their new spouses.

The Child

Linda Holmes, NPR: “There’s no mugging and no sobbing; she is heartbreaking because she is transparently processing the fact that while her parents are willing to fight over her, they will not in fact choose her, over either their other interests or their conflict.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Scribes Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne approximate the intimate child’s perspective James achieved on the page by placing Maisie (Aprile) in every scene, continually reminding the viewer of the invisible trauma being inflicted by two thoughtless individuals on the person most deserving of their care and attention.”

There’s Therapy in Maisie’s Future

Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly: “She might as well be invisible, but she hears everything. And here’s the only good news: Onata Aprile, the young actress who plays the adorable moppet trapped in this bitter custody tug-of-war, is heartbreakingly good. All you have to do is take one look into her wide, sad eyes to know she’s internalizing all the vicious white noise. You also suspect that she’s going to spend most of her teenage years in marathon therapy sessions.”

The Parents of What Maisie Knew

Justin Chang, Variety: “…(H)er parents, fiery-tempered rock musician Susanna (Julianne Moore) and perpetually distracted art dealer Beale (Steve Coogan), have divorced, leaving their soft-spoken, well-behaved daughter to drift between their respective Manhattan apartments. Each parent wants custody for all the wrong reasons, as it soon becomes infuriatingly clear that, despite their superficial expressions of affection, they’re more interested in using Maisie as a weapon against each other than in serving her best interests.”

The Dad

Sheila O’Malleyrogerebert.com: “Steve Coogan, in his few scenes, is terrifying. It’s a great portrayal of unfettered narcissism. He has one moment, in the back of a cab, saying goodbye to Maisie, that is as good as anything he has ever done. For just a moment, you see him understand, and actually feel, his own terrible nature.”

The Mom

Justin Chang, Variety: “It’s Susanna, trying to convince Maisie and herself that she’s a good mother, who arguably winds up doing the greater damage, and Moore acts with a white-hot fury that sends waves of resentment and self-pity flying in all directions.”

The New Spouses

Rex Reed, New York Observer:

…Susanna’s new husband is a sweet, sensitive bartender named Lincoln (versatile, appealing Alexander Skarsgård) who shows Maisie the kind of sincere compassion she never had from her own dad, and Beale runs away with the nanny, a kind-hearted girl named Margo (Joanna Vanderham) whose maternal instincts seem genuine instead of the phony play-acting Maisie gets from her real mother. At first, these replacements fill tertiary positions, but eventually they do something Maisie has never experienced—they become real friendsOne of the things Maisie learns is that loneliness is not restricted to only one age, gender or legal document. Both Lincoln and Margo are neglected and unloved. Maisie has always been the one left out of the equation, the lockbox where the grownups deposit their fears, tears and anxieties. Surprisingly, it is now up to a child to make the adults feel wanted. Unwillingly, they eventually become playmates, guardians and surrogate parents to the little girl who needs them, and the two most unconditionally devoted people Maisie knows are the two people who have landed in her life by accident.

Nov 18

“Melancholia”: A Film Headed to a Planet Near You

Naturally, the movie title catches my eye: Melancholia. Sadness. I’ve seen a lot of that as a therapist. Also, of course, as a human being.

It’s a new film. As of today, in limited release.

Oh. It’s sci-fi about the world ending. Not my bag, I think. And, no wonder there’s melancholia.

I’m still curious, though. On the official website:

In this beautiful movie about the end of the world, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) are celebrating their marriage at a sumptuous party in the home of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Despite Claire’s best efforts, the wedding is a fiasco, with family tensions mounting and relationships fraying. Meanwhile, a planet called Melancholia is heading directly towards Earth… MELANCHOLIA is a psychological disaster film from director Lars von Trier.

Interesting, and now certainly more intriguing. I mean, it’s a “beautiful” world-ending, not your typically envisioned ugly one.

I find out that Dunst’s character Justine is severely depressed. (Melancholia–it’s not just an Earth-colliding planet.) Richard Rushfield, writing for The Daily Beast, calls her, in fact, “the saddest bride in history.” Not only that, Dunst gives “the performance of a lifetime.”

So, a sad person, well-acted, in a beautiful film. What a catharsis this could be for a shrink who sometimes needs to feel and express emotions that build up with seemingly nowhere to go, occupational-hazard-wise.

I’m browsing The Huffington Post and find that E. Nina Rothe, a writer and “global culture explorer,” got to preview the film in New York before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. She states: “As the film ended, I…uncontrollably wept the deepest tears I have been able to shed since the horrific events of one crisp, tragic morning 10 years ago. For that, I silently thanked the genius of von Trier, for having the vision to create a film that would at once show our fragility on earth but also exalt the power of humanity, while feeding our fears of alienation and framing it all in his exquisite shots and painting-like images.”

Oh my god, I could cry already.

Can all the rest of the reviews be this good?

Many indeed are. But, oops (to quote Rick Perry)—some are downright terrible. Rex Reed, The Observer, for instance: “…(T)he critics who fill the quote ads for this dirge with words like ‘masterpiece’ keep me manic with mirth. Wander into this idiocy and by the time it’s over, you’ll know the meaning of ‘melancholia’ yourself.”

Or LeonardMaltin.com: “To my mind, Melancholia is both absorbing and absurd.”

Or Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter:

A brooding cross between The Celebration (Festen) and Armageddon drenched in the tragic romanticism of Richard Wagner, this contemplation of the planet’s demise predictably provides not an ounce of comfort or redemption, nor does it offer characters or ideas with which to meaningfully engage, just ample opportunity to wallow in some rapturous images, glorious music and a foul mood.

Guess you’ll have to see for yourself.