Sep 13

“Tiny Beautiful Things”: The Couples Therapy (Spoilers)

Tiny Beautiful Things on Hulu is a fictional adaptation of advice columnist Cheryl Strayed‘s 2012 book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. (For additional background, see this previous post about the film Wild based on Strayed’s solo hike of the Pacific Coast Trail.)

As the series Tiny Beautiful Things begins, Clare (Kathryn Hahn) has not yet fulfilled her writing ambitions; also, she has not yet become “Dear Sugar.” She carries tremendous grief about her mom who died from advanced cancer, can’t connect with her teenage daughter, and is separated from her husband Danny (Quentin Plair) but pursuing couples therapy with him.

In Episode One we see that Clare “doesn’t trust their therapist, Mel, who wonders aloud whether Clare’s instability is due to latent anxieties about her decaying beauty as she approaches 50” (TV Line). While this statement seems out of left field and representative of a biased attitude toward Clare that gets repeated down the line, the style of this therapist (Tijuana Ricks) with Danny seems different, possibly even flirtatious. The latter has actually been acknowledged by both Hahn and Plair (Decider).

Beyond this, however, there’s a lot we don’t get to understand about the couples therapy dynamics.

For example, although it’s briefly mentioned early on that Danny has met with Mel separately, we don’t know in what context or how many times. Did Clare choose not to attend a session or more? Was Danny in individual therapy with Mel before it became couples therapy? Or maybe he still has separate sessions? Whatever the case, perhaps there were appropriate reasons for separate sessions, just as there may have been inappropriate ones.

A Google search reveals that many viewers are confused about what is happening between Danny and the couples therapist. Many wonder if Mel is a bad therapist, period. Question categories include:

  • Why is Danny seen (by Clare) chatting with Mel in her office after their session has ended? (A major stressor for Clare, by the way, who only witnessed this inadvertently.)
  • Does Mel pick on Clare unnecessarily? Is Danny Mel’s “favorite”?
  • Why did Mel single Danny out by sending him that column (that led to his realization that he needs to end his marriage)?
  • Is it appropriate that Mel then gave him a special after-hours individual session? He clearly requested it, but is this the right course of action?
  • Is Danny “Johnny,” the married sender of the letter to Sugar about falling in love with someone—and is that someone Mel?

It’s left for viewers to draw their own conclusions. As a viewer myself who’s also been a couples therapist, I do have a few thoughts.

  • The dynamics in the couples sessions do seem out of whack and biased towards Danny. (But you didn’t need me to tell you that.)
  • The dynamics outside of couples sessions do seem inappropriate. If couples therapy is going to proceed fairly, each party should be informed if separate talks are occurring with the therapist.
  • Mel did show a clear bias or favoritism by sending the column to Danny only. Why not share it with both of them, if at all?
  • It follows that the “emergency” session with Danny didn’t have to happen if he hadn’t received this special treatment from Mel. Moreover, I think it’s implied that Clare is not aware of this happening.
  • If Danny has fallen for Mel, she likely has contributed to this. And if something more intimate is happening between them, it’s highly inappropriate and unethical on Mel’s part as a therapist.
Dec 26

“Wild”: Cheryl Strayed’s Difficult But Therapeutic Journey

The plot in brief of Jean-Marc Vallee‘s Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed‘s memoir: Following a series of losses and struggles, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a solo three-month hike on the Pacific Coast Trail. Her mission statement: “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was” (Susan Wloszczyna, rogerebert.com).

Her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) has died several years earlier. In flashbacks we see Bobbi as well as Cheryl’s friend (Gaby Hoffmann) and her husband (Thomas Sadoski).

Strayed encounters people—mostly men–along her current journey as well. Justin Chang, Variety: “As an attractive woman in her 20s traveling alone, Cheryl is acutely aware that every strange man she encounters is a potential predator — whether it’s the kind farm worker (W. Earl Brown) who offers her a hot meal and shower, or the fellow traveler who turns out to be a very real threat. But Cheryl is neither a passive victim nor a saint, and in a film of quietly understated moments that often prove more impressive than the whole, few are as telling as the one where she casually spies on a male hiker (Kevin Rankin) emerging nude from a dip in the river — a rare example of the female gaze at work in American movies.”

See the Wild trailer below:

WITHERSPOON AS STRAYED

Like many (including myself), Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune) is fully on board: “Witherspoon does the least acting of her career, and it works. Calmly yet restlessly, she brings to life Strayed’s longings, her states of grief and desire and her wary optimism.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post, represents the other camp: “…(T)here’s not a moment in the film when we can forget that we’re watching Reese Witherspoon…”

CHERYL STRAYED

Dana Stevens, Slate: “Cheryl’s a female protagonist of a kind we rarely see in the movies, someone who can be not just unlikable but at times unknowable, even to herself. This woman is a piece of work: disorganized, sailor-mouthed, given to self-destructive promiscuity and addictive behavior, but also curious, sardonic, and scary smart.”

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “What makes its heroine worth caring about — what makes her a rare and exciting presence in contemporary American film — is not that she’s tidy or sensible or even especially nice. It’s that she’s free.”