How Cinematherapy Helped Me Through a Midlife Crisis

Yes, there is a therapeutic basis for “watching movies to heal,” but only if you do it the right way. Here's how.
Silhouette of a person sitting in front of a large screen in a movie theater
Photograph: d3sign/Getty Images

I was standing at the precipice, a middle-aged woman, yearning for a new beginning and trying to reinvent my life. After spending two decades raising my daughter alone, cherishing every moment of motherhood, I finally had the time to focus on my career and love aspirations, but the world seemed to be telling me I was too old and too late.

It started just after I turned 50, when my doctor's office sent me a medical reminder disguised as a birthday card. “Look who's all grown up and ready for a colonoscopy,” it read. I chuckled at its cleverness, but it planted a seed of uncertainty.

Then came the email invitation from AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, inviting me to join and take advantage of the multiple discounts. I understood their good intentions, but something didn’t sit right with me. It had ignited my deepest fear that I was running out of time.

I still had so much I wanted to do in life—dreams waiting to be fulfilled. So with the clock ticking, I decided to shift things into high gear. I purchased a new planner and carefully recorded my aspirations: writing success in the form of a book deal, a better-paying job to support me along the way, and the captivating love story I’d always yearned for. I realized these were lofty goals with plenty of obstacles in the way, but I wrote them down anyway. With the words of Norman Vincent Peale echoing in my head—“Aim for the moon, and even if you fall short, you'll find yourself among the stars”—I was determined to give it my all.

I dusted off the book manuscript I’d long ago stuffed in a desk drawer and allocated time, though minimal, to write each morning. Next, I polished up my résumé and started applying for new jobs. Three weeks later, I was thrilled when I landed an interview for what appeared to be the ideal position—part-time work with full-time pay that would afford me precious time to work on my manuscript.

I reviewed my résumé and prepared thorough responses to potential questions. As the day arrived, I carefully chose my outfit, wearing what I thought was a winning combination of style and professionalism: my new H&M black blazer paired with my pinstriped black-and-cream top, and ankle-length dress pants to match. Though anxious, I was ready to put my best foot forward.

The interview flowed smoothly, the conversation was engaging, and the fortysomething interviewer seemed to be impressed with my experience. I felt hopeful, until she posed a question that no one had ever asked me in a job interview.

“What generation are you?”

Bewildered, I asked, “You mean, how old am I?”

“Yes,” she said.


“You would be joining a young, progressive team, but you look much younger, so I think you’d fit in just fine,” she said.

My excitement turned to apprehension as we wrapped up the interview.

Driving home, her unsettling words playing in my head, I remembered the résumé feedback I’d received from an employment agency a month earlier. “Remove the dates to avoid age bias,” they’d said. Anxiety welled up in me. Was it possible that my age could hinder me from job opportunities? The thought terrified me.

That night, I shared my interview experience with my partner.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You’re still youthful, full of energy, and have a lot to offer.”

Despite his efforts to cheer me up, our difficult history hung between us. Considering that we hadn’t been intimate in years, and our relationship felt like it was on the brink of collapse, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my age had played a part in that, too. The mounting evidence weighed on me.

As the weeks went on—and I didn’t get the position—I continued my job search and writing pursuits, but my confidence waned. With disappointment and self-doubt as my constant companions, I felt like a fool for even trying. It seemed obvious that at my age, I wasn’t going to be anyone’s first choice.

A month later, anxious, depressed, and stuck, I went to see a therapist for help. A seasoned psychotherapist with a master's degree in counseling and a certificate in marriage and family therapy, he listened patiently.

“It sounds like you've been carrying a heavy emotional burden trying to navigate the complexities of midlife, age discrimination, and problems in your relationship,” he said.

I breathed a deep sigh of relief and gratitude just hearing him validate what I’d been going through.

As the session went on, my therapist—who ordinarily used a combination of cognitive behavioral and family systems therapy—told me about a new therapy he’d incorporated into his practice called “cinematherapy.”

He described cinematherapy as an artistic tool that exposes individuals to their difficulties through characters in movies who are dealing with similar issues, thus encouraging clients to see their challenges in a different light. He asked whether I’d be willing to try it.

Though I wasn’t big on watching television, the idea made sense. I’d long believed that the content we consume affects our mental health. It seemed plausible that one could watch a movie therapeutically. I agreed to give it a chance.

Cinematherapy has its roots in bibliotherapy, which involves using book plots as a form of therapy. However, the use of films and videos is believed to be more impactful and immediate. With the earliest scientific study being done in 1974, cinematherapy has been proven to be effective in treating various mental health conditions including eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and addiction.

In a conversation with Frann Altman, a respected psychologist and professor who has used cinematherapy in her practice for over 20 years, she emphasized that cinematherapy is more than just entertainment. “It is not akin to a book club or chat group,” she explained. In cinematherapy, individuals engage with carefully selected films that resonate with their personal experiences. They connect with characters and storylines, extract meaning, and reflect on how the narratives relate to their own life. It's a deeply introspective and emotionally engaging process that requires the guidance of an experienced therapist, she said.

Gary Solomon, a clinical psychologist and the author of several books on cinematherapy, including The Motion Picture Prescription, suggests that viewers pay attention to how they connect with characters and storylines and keep a journal to record their reactions, insights, and emotional responses while watching the film. They can reflect on these insights and use them when meeting with their therapist.

Though my therapist provided me with a list of movies to choose from, with his guidance, I opted to find one on my own. I selected a movie that resonated with my experience and that I believed would be uplifting, based on the trailer and plot summary.

That night, with an open mind, eager heart, and pen in hand, I turned on a movie called Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. Inspired by the European setting and the trailer that showcased a middle-aged cleaning lady from London pursuing her dream of owning a Christian Dior dress, I pressed play.

The main character, Ada Harris, like myself, was at a crossroads, questioning her place in life and dreaming big. She encountered many setbacks, including financial difficulties, mockery, and dismissal because of her age and circumstances. Still, she pressed on.

A pivotal scene unfolded when Ada Harris stepped into the elite world of haute couture, feeling out of place among the rich and well dressed. Ada Harris experiences an almost magical transformation when she tries on the elegant Dior dress. The dress is symbolic. It represents the transformative power of pursuing your dreams. It created a paradigm shift in me the moment I saw it.

Ada Harris exemplified qualities I’d always believed were a part of me but had tucked away, surrendering to external pressures that defined how I should live. As the movie progressed, I discovered a kindred spirit in Mrs. Harris. Like her, I was inspired to break free from societal expectations and follow my own path.

At my next appointment, my therapist and I reviewed my insights and discussed how I could apply them in the future. The impact was profound, like an “Aha!” moment you come across while reading a self-help book or an affirmation that strikes a chord with your heart. While my goals remained unchanged, a shift in perspective gave me a newfound resolve to move forward.

As the months went on, and as I continued incorporating movies into my treatment plan, cinematherapy became like a compass, helping me navigate the path to self-discovery and growth.

It has been a year since events sparked my fear of being too old and too late, but they also ignited determination. In the words of Mrs. Harris, “Age is but a number, my love. It’s the fire within your soul that truly defines your years.”