The way I watch movies has changed in the past decade. From being a social worker with foster kids to now being a parent to a child with trauma, I notice things in film now that I never would have before, specifically with how a film treats that oh-so-taboo subject. There are certain movies we can’t watch with our son anymore (i.e. Kung Fu Panda 2), because there are a moments that trigger emotional reactions for him beyond what is quote-unquote normal. Ugh, that word. It’s terrible.
Capturing trauma in a visual medium is a taxing challenge for the filmmaker because so much of trauma is internal. Rule number 1 in filmmaking is “show, don’t tell,” but how do you show a feeling? (Insert Inside Out reference here.) How do you show a character processing emotions? How do you prepare an audience that they themselves could be traumatized by what they are seeing? If you’re looking for specific answers to those questions, this is the wrong blog.
While this particular post is by no means meant as an exhaustive list of movies that deal with trauma, and while I fully concede the uneasiness of a blog with the words “Best” and “Trauma” put together in the title, I wanted to pick out more accessible, well-known films dealing with specific, common themes. If you have something to add, I’d love to know, so leave a comment.
Note: I decided to also include a 1-10 rating in terms of how traumatizing the viewing experience itself is to help readers know what they may or may not be able to handle. Granted, it’s a bit arbitrary depending on what you’ve experienced in life, but 10 is most traumatic.
All Quiet On The Western Front (1930) – Trauma Rating: 5Trauma: PTSD, loss
This Lewis Milestone film was the first film to ever claim the coveted Best Director/Best Picture combo at the Academy Awards. An adaptation of the acclaimed anti-war novel of the same name, it follows the journey of naive Paul (Lew Ayres) from nationalistic idealist to jaded survivor of repeated loss, witness to a thousand horrors of warfare. The film was actually banned in Nazi Germany which tells you how afraid they were of its influence and power. Experience is not just an educator, but a perspective changer.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) – Trauma Rating: 4Trauma: PTSD, disability, reverse culture shock
Part of what makes this William Wyler-helmed World War II flick so captivating is that there isn’t a single battle scene in it – at least, not in the traditional sense. The plot is driven not by Axis and Allies drama, but by the personal battles faced by three veterans returning home after war, grappling with self-worth, connection, and finding a “new normal” on the other side of trauma. They face a sort of reverse culture shock as they try to step back into the lives they left behind though they will never be the same.
The Color Purple (1985) – Trauma Rating: 9Trauma: physical/sexual/verbal abuse
Spielberg’s The Color Purple is a roller coaster ride of trauma as seen through the eyes of Celie. The story isn’t just about the decades of abuse she faces, but about how she copes and becomes stronger by not letting that abuse define how she sees herself or others. Shame is a daunting enemy to the human spirit and is a weapon of manipulation in the hand of the abuser. Forgiveness is not weakness, but the fuel for hope and healing.
The Lion King (1994) – Trauma Rating: 5Trauma: grief, avoidance, blame-the-victim
While comparisons to Hamlet abound, The Lion King is really a parable of coping. Simba goes through self-blame, shame, avoidance, isolation, familial separation, confession, and ultimately, recovery. The greatest moment comes in the climactic exchange between Simba and Rafiki after the latter whacks the former on the head with his walking stick:
Simba: Ow! What was that for?
Rafiki: It doesn’t matter – it’s in the past.
Simba: Yeah, but it still hurts…
Rafiki: Oh yes…the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or, learn from it.
While this is a simplification of the recovery process, this basic truth could not be more poetically communicated. The past hurts. It may always hurt. But that doesn’t mean the survivor can’t learn from it and even learn how to help others from their own experiences.
Life Is Beautiful (1998) – Trauma Rating: 7Trauma: racism, abuse, loss, separation
Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning performance captures life in an epicenter of trauma. Part of the film’s beauty is the incredible humor and heart that Benigni’s Guido uses to protect his child from experiencing the obvious ugliness of what is happening all around them. It is a survival story about making a silver lining when there are none to be found.
Ray (2004) – Trauma Rating: 7Trauma: disability, loss, addiction, racism
Ray is bold for its refusal to ignore its subject’s faults while still celebrating his accomplishments. By artfully cross-referencing Ray Charles’ career and personal mistakes with his traumatic past, we get a front-row seat to the long-term effects of trauma not dealt with. Poverty, loss, disability, racism, and separation certainly contributed to Ray’s well-documented drug habits and infidelities. Music, of course, was ultimately Ray’s most effective coping mechanism for his trauma and that is what the genius will always be remembered and adored for.
Danny Boyle’s love letter to Mumbai culture is a masterpiece of storytelling. By using a trivial trivia show to tell a not so trivial tale, we become eyewitnesses to Jamal’s (Dev Patel) difficult and hopeful history. The game show setting also creates an opportunity for him to process his trauma question by question, a bizarre voyeuristic therapy session. Finding joy often means wading through pain first and accepting the good that can come from that pain.
50/50:cancer::Life Is Beautiful:the Holocaust. Got that? Jonathan Levine’s dramedy about a young man coping with an insidious cancer diagnosis is funny, touching, honest, and refreshing. The film’s greatest success is showing the secondary trauma experienced by friends and family. Screenwriter Will Reiser (and real-life buddy to star Seth Rogen) wrote the script largely influenced by his own personal experience with cancer, bringing a level of authenticity missing in other medical-related fare.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) – Trauma Rating: 8Trauma: loss, special needs, child PTSD
This film holds the dubious honor of probably being the worst-reviewed Best Picture nominee in recent history. Honestly, I cannot understand the negative reviews as I found it compelling and heartfelt. The movie is unique in that it speaks through the voice of an autism spectrum boy trying to cope with the loss of his father after the 9/11 attacks. The adventure he goes on teaches that while there is not always a “meaning” behind loss, survivors and loved ones can find a new meaning for themselves in the aftermath.
Big Hero 6 (2014) – Trauma Rating: 6Trauma: grief, loss, anger
Part of the new Disney renaissance, Big Hero 6 goes beyond your traditional superhero fare. I have talked about my love of this film elsewhere, but it is worth another mention here for its compassionate and honest portrayal of grief. Of particular note is protagonist Hiro’s desire for vengeance born out of his hurt. Trauma has a peculiar way of blinding the survivor’s sense of right and wrong, which of course only makes the trauma more powerful and helps it to perpetuate itself and prevent real healing. Sometimes letting go hurts just as much as having something taken away.
Boyhood (2014) – Trauma Rating: 8Trauma: physical/verbal abuse, divorce, addiction
Growing up is its own kind of trauma. A friend of mine commented after watching Boyhood that he thought the film was incredible but would never be able to watch it again because it too closely resembled his own childhood. Richard Linklater’s ambitious 12-year project takes the audience on a journey with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up, the product of a broken marriage and firsthand witness to domestic violence. Like most of us, Mason struggles to identify who he is and where he fits into the world. As much as we like to say our past doesn’t define us, that’s not entirely true-it can define a lot about how we see the world and respond to situations. It just doesn’t have to design us.
Room (2015) – Trauma Rating: 10Trauma: kidnapping, sexual/emotional abuse, recovery
No one is ever prepared for a movie like Room. It is difficult to watch and yet impossible to tear your eyes away from. While it is a testament to the brave and unstoppable love of mothers for their children, it is equally about living in the midst of and recovery from trauma. The entire second half of the film focuses on recovery, and Brie Larson’s performance is raw, brutal, and heart-rending. Love is a powerful force, and when combined with patience, opens the door from out of captivity and into freedom, literal and emotional.
While most of these are not quite popcorn-munching, date-night fare, they are helpful in gaining some perspective into complicated and difficult concepts. When you can’t step into someone else’s shoes, sometimes the artist can shed some light, even if the light is on celluloid. Again, there are certainly other movies that could easily fit on this particular list (Short Term 12, Precious, The Accused and City of God come to mind), but this is a good start for those wanting to learn more about trauma and its effects.