Cinematherapy: A great way to engage and discuss with adolescents the struggles of life

As a licensed clinical social worker who works with adolescents I utilize a variety of different approaches and methods to engage them, explore ideas, discuss their experiences and struggles, and process their pain, loss and heartache. One of the methods I utilize is cinematherapy.  Cinematherapy is a creative way to engage adolescents, create dialogue about life issues and struggles, access and create dialogue about emotions and relationships, and examine attitudes and behaviors.

“Storytelling weaves together sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions in ways that organize both one’s internal and external worlds.”  Louis Cozollino

Movies have plot, dialogue, storytelling, pictures, colors, sound, music, dilemmas and kinesthetic. It provides a protective cover for adolescents–a way to explore a sensitive topic of the adolescent experience without exposure.

As a part of my initial assessment, I ask the adolescent about his or her favorite songs, artists, television shows, movies, and characters to get a sense of the type of genre of cinema and music they like. I do my research and strategically select songs and movies that I may incorporate into the session based on the presenting problem and treatment goals. In my sessions with the adolescent, we are able to explore and dive deep into some real life issues played out on the screen in a way that the adolescent is not under the microscope. I put the characters, with their struggles, relationships, and lived experiences, under the microscope. I always explain before showing the movie the guidelines, including how we can talk during the movie and that it is okay to raise questions and stop the movie as needed. We do not rush through the movie. There have been times with some adolescents that we have watched a movie over several sessions because there was so much rich material that paralleled their life stories that we were able to process.

In Responding to the Pain of Others, Ann Jurecic writes, “some realities need to be fictionalized before they can be apprehended.”


I find this method of apprehending reality through fiction effective for adolescents for several reasons:

1. The protected cover provides safety and validation;

2. It allows the adolescent to be in the reflective, observer position, which gives them space to critically think, question, and reflect; and

3. It gives them a sense of control over the material and themselves.

We are processing real life issues—struggles involving pain, growing up, loss and abuse–and exploring disassociated parts of self, memories, and the unknown. Emotions are activated and, as we know there is no change or transformation without experiencing emotions.


One of the movies I often utilize is Divergent. It is the first part of a trilogy. The movie is based on a bestselling book by Veronica Roth. The movie is about a 16-year-old female’s adolescent journey of learning to take charge of her life in a hard environment, discovering her voice, owning her power, and struggling with the realities of her world. The 16-year-old Beatrice “Tris” Prior (played by Shailene Woodley) is faced with a dilemma that many adolescents experience. She must choose a future from two paths: one that would allow her to stay connected with her family and the other that would let her be her own person. Tris is a part of a dystopian society set in a futuristic Chicago that is divided into five factions, each based on a virtue: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peaceful and one with nature), Candor (honesty), and Erudite (intelligent). There is another faction, the factionless, for those who don’t claim a faction, are kicked out of a faction, and/or oppose the established system. Tris learns who she is and where she belongs after choosing to join a different faction from the one into which she was born. At the same time, the leaders of the Erudite and Dauntless factions are secretly plotting to take power from the Abnegation faction, who currently holds the political roles in their society. Tris discovers this secret with her Dauntless trainer and love interest, Four, which further complicates her experience.

I am going to share with you some pictures of scenes that I often choose to focus on and discuss with the adolescent. I will analyze the scene from  a film analysis perspective to give greater insight into the scene. 

Scene One: The Test Results 

In Tris’s society, at age 16 years old, the adolescent undergoes a test that is supposed to help her choose the faction she will abide in as an adult. In this scene, the tester tells Tris that “the test did not work on her.” Her results came up Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite, and this is bad. The tester is alarmed and so is Tris. Tris cries out, “the test was supposed to tell her what to do.” In this scene, Tris is told she is Divergent, and she is warned not to tell anyone about her results and that she needs to think for herself. The tester tells Tris that she is putting Abnegation in the system. The tester pushes her out the door and tells her “to tell everyone she was sick and had to leave early.”


The director, Neil Burger uses a medium shot here to capture the conversation between both characters and the context of their conversation, including the door and a little bit of the room behind the tester. The lighting is not bright signifying the mood, which is suspenseful.  After the silence between them, the sound of the door closing is one of a thick, big mental-institution door.

This is a scene for which I watch adolescents’ reactions closely, including their facial expressions, body language, and sounds or words. I inquire about their thoughts regarding expectations, established pathways that don’t work out, and moments when they realize that they must rely on themselves to figure out what to do with their lives. I pose questions about the experience: how do you think Tris feels in this moment when she realizes things aren’t the way she thought and was told? I ask if it they think it’s like an awakening or a betrayal?

Scene Two: What Were Your Test Results?

Before this scene, Tris passed the physical part of the Dauntless test, and it is the next day, where the winners are volunteering by loading food onto trunks to be given out to the factionless. In this scene, Tris’s mother shows up and pulls Tris to the side because Tris is not supposed to have contact with her family after she chose to join the Dauntless faction. After a warm embrace and praise, her mother asks her what her test results were. Tris hesitates to tell her, remembering the warning by the tester. But her mother says, “Divergent.” Tris asks what it means, and her mother tells her, “you don’t conform, your mind goes in different directions, and they are afraid of you. Don’t tell anyone.” She warns her about the second part of the test, where they will look into her head and see how she responds to fear. The mother encourages her, but we see Tris’s reactions of panic and fear to what her mother is saying.


Burger does a great job capturing this moment with a close up shot. The shot shows Tris’s face to pull the viewer into her emotion.  The lighting on Tris’s face allows the viewer to see the impact of the moment on her,  and the only sounds are the characters speaking with some background noise.

I explore this moment with adolescents, and I ask how it feels to sit with a label you really don’t understand and someone explaining it to you in a rushed manner, unable to hold your hand through the process of coming to know what it really means for you. How do you feel, and can you relate? Many of the adolescents I work with have a formal diagnosis—a label—which they do not agree with or fully understand.

Scenes Three: The Fear Simulation Training

This was Tris’s second time going through the fear test to prepare for the final test to become a full-fledged member of the Dauntless faction, which happens in front of Dauntless and Erudite leaders. In this scene, Tris is running to meet with her friends and her Dauntless trainer, but she is stopped by a clear glass and is forced to watch them looking, pointing, and laughing at her. Then, before she knows it, Tris is in a box that is filling with water. These are the pictures you see below.




Burger jumps from Tris standing outside the glass to being in the tank filling with water. He takes a high angle, where Tris is small in the moment, putting the viewer in the position of power. The sounds are diegetic, coming out of the scene, and you can hear the water rushing in.

In this scene, I discuss with adolescents the fear Tris experiences about being excluded, alone, and humiliated. I ask how it feels. I wonder out loud if the tank filling with water is visually showing us how Tris is experiencing the moment–overwhelming, and I ask why this experience is painful and common for some many adolescents.

Scene Four: Tris Stops The Simulation

Before this moment in the scene, viewers see on the computer scenes the Dauntless members under the influence of a serum, where they think they are in a simulation but, in reality, they are being used by select leaders of Erudite and Dauntless to kill off the Abnegation faction leadership and some members. Before Tris gives the mastermind of the plot, Erudite leader Jean, the serum in order to command her to stop the simulation, Jean whips her head around. She is shocked by Tris’s reaction to her putdown and attempts to shame her. She says, “you’re not as Dauntless as you thought.” Tris responds to her in a confident and commanding tone, “I’m Divergent,” just before she plunges the needle with the serum into Jean’s neck. We can see Tris’s hands around Jean’s neck. Look closely.



Burger chooses close up shots and bright lighting to show characters’ emotions and to pull the viewer into the experience. He wants the viewer to share in this moment, feeling Jean and Tris’s emotions. The sound is diegetic—we hear the characters talking—and non-diegetic, as music imposes on the scene and adds to the feel of victory.

This is one of the climatic scenes of the movie that shows how an adolescent can own her power, take control, come to grips, integrate different parts of her identity from earlier stages of her life as she journeys into adulthood, and use opposition in ways that benefit not just herself but her society. 

When watching this scene, I look for the adolescent’s reactions—nonverbal and verbal— and explore with the adolescent how he or she feels. We discuss the moment of triumph and how Tris now owns the label that is placed on her. We discuss identity, the process of naming a phenomenon, and Tris’s move from the underdog to victor. Tris illustrates Erik Erickson’s sentiment in Identity Youth and Crisis, which states, “an adolescent resisting with wild strength.”

“Should a young person feel that the environment tries to deprive her too radically of all the forms of expression which permit her to develop and integrate the next step, she may resist with the wild strength encountered in animals who are suddenly forced to defend their lives.  For indeed, in the social jungle of human existence there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”—Erik EricksonIdentity Youth and Crisis  

Bolded words in quote represent gender pronoun change by writer of this blog.

This is a method I encourage professionals to utilize with adolescents and caregivers can utilize some of the techniques to enrich those teaching moments with specific scenes when viewing movies with their adolescents.  Try it and share your experiences with me.

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