Two YouTube hosts have built a following by dissecting the psychology of movie characters. Here, they analyze some of this summer’s familiar faces.
By Gabe Cohn
Is Indiana Jones better at burying his feelings than digging up priceless artifacts? How might Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver’s characters in “Marriage Story” have better navigated divorce and co-parenting? Hey, wait a minute: Does the hero of “The Lego Batman Movie” contain all the building blocks of a narcissist?
Such questions are the bread and butter — or perhaps the popcorn and butter-flavored topping — of the YouTube series “Cinema Therapy.” Founded in 2020 by its hosts, Jonathan Decker, a marriage and family therapist, and Alan Seawright, a filmmaker, the channel has built a following in part by holding faux therapy sessions for heroes, villains and onscreen couples, treating movie plots and characters as case studies for mental health topics. Some typical titles: “Psychology of a Hero: ‘Hulk’ and Anger Management,” “Villain Therapy: Jobu Tupaki From ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’” and “Movie Couple Therapy: ‘Shrek.’”
Like TikTok therapists and mindfulness podcasts, “Cinema Therapy” is part of a wave of modern media that delves into topics once reserved for psychology books, academic journals and, well, actual therapy. The hosts and their team shoot the videos in the basement of Seawright’s Utah home. By YouTube’s count, many episodes have been viewed more than a million times each.
In a recent interview, Decker and Seawright, both 42, discussed characters from four of this summer’s big movies.
Greta Gerwig’s take on the toy line centers on a version of Barbie (Margot Robbie) whose ostensibly perfect life is interrupted when she develops flat feet and irrepressible thoughts of death.
DECKER Barbie is having an existential crisis. We see this in real life — the whole, “things start to go wrong in my life and I’m not sure why, because I’m just chugging along like I always have been.” And the assumption is, what I’ve always been doing is fine. There’s a phrase in trauma healing, “the thing that used to help you has now got you stuck.” What saved me before is now hurting me.
SEAWRIGHT There’s a difference in life, and in film characters, between what the character wants and what they need.
DECKER Barbie wants everything to just keep going the way it’s going. What she needs is self-reflection, introspection and perspective-taking. Perspective-taking allows her to make a shift, to let go of the thing that worked for her in the past and to walk into a future that’s going to work for her. What I would prescribe is exactly what the movie does.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
“Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s biopic about the man who was central to the development of the atomic bomb, shows its subject (played by Cillian Murphy) grappling with the consequences of his invention — and maintaining a romantic connection with a political activist, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh), while married to Katherine Oppenheimer (Emily Blunt), known as Kitty.
SEAWRIGHT It was really fascinating to see [Nolan] apply his complex, nonlinear time sense to a guy who, in a very similar way, looked at the rules of physics and was like, “No, I’m going to break those” — and who looked at the rules of relationships and went, “No, I’m going to break those.”
DECKER Oppenheimer to me, it’s like the difference between narcissism and hubris. Because Oppenheimer isn’t devoid of compassion for other people. Generally, he doesn’t put others down to make himself look better. He does think that he is unique and specially gifted, but, to be fair, he was. So Oppenheimer is not a narcissist, but he does have a high amount of hubris. It’s the hubris that led to the naïveté — the naïveté in his personal relationships that, “I can carry on with Jean while being married to Kitty and this’ll go fine.” What I would prescribe in therapy is cognitive behavioral treatment exploring his assumptions about himself and the world around him, to challenge that thinking.
Miles and Rio Morales
One story line in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” the latest adventure of the teenage hero Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), finds Miles furthering a relationship with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld). Miles’s mother, Rio Morales (Lauren Vélez), struggles to accept it — though she does come around.
DECKER In adulthood, presumably, we have full autonomy. In childhood, we’re very reliant on our parents. And then in between is where the power struggle happens, where kids want more power than the parents feel they’re ready for, and parents want more control than the kids want to give them. Alan and I both feel the same way: There have been so many unhealthy relationships played for drama, that to actually show people growing and doing right by each other is not only refreshing — I think it’s the future of storytelling. Some of our more popular episodes have been about healthy movie marriages or things where we show what good parenting looks like. People are like, “I have plenty of examples in my real life of what the negative looks like.” And so I like to see Miles’s mom arrive where she did.
Harrison Ford’s whip-snapping archaeologist is in low spirits at the start of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” which finds an aging Indy separated from his wife, Marion (Karen Allen), and grieving the death of their son.
SEAWRIGHT This is a married couple who lost a son. They need to be in therapy. Granted, it’s, what, the late ’60s, early ’70s? That’s not really a thing that’s done.
DECKER I don’t know if I would give him major depressive disorder, maybe dysthymic disorder, which is like depressive disorder but it doesn’t have as many rigorous criteria. Instead of chronic, it would be circumstantial: circumstantial related to aging, the loss of his son, his separation from his wife. The way he has a lack of not just energy, but a lack of interest in life, in people. The things that used to excite him don’t excite him anymore. What I would urge him to do in counseling is to not do what he generally does, which is to bury his feelings. I would advise him to go to therapy with Marion and to work on expressing his vulnerability and opening up to her.
Gabe Cohn writes about movies, television and other topics related to culture and the arts. He joined The Times in 2017. More about Gabe Cohn
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