Though the depictions of the psychological concepts in the movies listed below aren’t all completely clinically correct, they still shed light on conditions ranging from alcoholism to schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder to amnesia and various points in between.
Movies are an excellent medium by which you can learn more about the human condition. The following psych movies should be considered as must-watches if you are studying psychology.
Quick Synopsis: A criminal (played by Jack Nicholson) pleads insanity, thinking that his time served will be easier in a mental institution rather than jail. Once there, he finds this isn’t necessarily the case.
Why You Should Watch: This film highlights various forms of psychosis and gives an inside look into how psychotherapy can (and perhaps shouldn’t) be used as a group treatment (it explores electro-shock therapy as well). It’s also quite a commentary on how mental institutions were run in the 1960s. It also explores how one brave person can make a difference in the lives of others
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Psychological treatments, mood disorders, personality disorders
Rain Man (1988)
Quick Synopsis: Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) is a schemer who doesn’t know he has an autistic brother, Raymond (played by Dustin Hoffman), until their father dies. Their father’s fortune is left to Raymond, and Charlie seeks to become Raymond’s custodian, and thus gain control of their father’s money. Rain Man is a psychology movie currently on Netflix.
Why You Should Watch: Dustin Hoffman’s performance of an autistic savant is magnificent, particularly considering that autism was not widely understood by the public when the film came out. The evolution of the relationship between Raymond and Charlie is also an interesting examination of family dynamics. Over time Charlie learns both tolerance and empathy for his brother, Raymond.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Autism spectrum disorders, family dynamics
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Quick Synopsis: The best movie about mental health is based on the true story of John Forbes Nash (played by Russell Crowe), a Nobel laureate and genius in mathematics, who lives with schizophrenia.
Why You Should Watch: Schizophrenia is widely misunderstood by the public, and the movie helps highlight the symptoms commonly associated with this disorder and explores how the disorder impacts daily functioning, family relationships, and social functioning. Because this movie is based on a true story, and has a rating of PG-13, parents may find this movie appropriate as a psychology movie for their high school student.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Schizophrenia, social psychology
Black Swan (2010)
Quick Synopsis: Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is a driven ballerina who is pursuing the lead role in Swan Lake. Another ballerina (played by Mila Kunis), however, enters the scene to compete with Nina for the lead role. The movie explores their rivalry, friendship, and Nina’s descent into darkness.
Why You Should Watch: This psychological thriller not only explores the effects of stress and the pursuit of perfectionism on a person’s functioning, but it also sheds light on family dynamics, personality disorders, anxiety, drug use, and psychosis, among other psychological conditions.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Psychotic disorders, family dynamics, social psychology, stress response
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Quick Synopsis: When Miss Daisy (played by Jessica Tandy) is no longer allowed to drive, her son hires a chauffeur (played by Morgan Freeman) to drive her around. The movie, which is initially set in 1948, explores how their relationship and friendship grows and changes over the course of 25 years.
Why You Should Watch: From a social psychology standpoint, this is an excellent film for evaluating prejudice and discrimination and how those attitudes form. Likewise, the movie addresses Alzheimer’s disease and shows its impact on a person’s body and mind. Driving Miss Daisy has a rating of PG, and parents may find this an appropriate social psychology movie for their high school student. This film explores how a friendship can grow and transform despite race and age.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Alzheimer’s disease, developmental psychology, social psychology
Quick Synopsis: Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce), suffers a head injury while trying to prevent the murder of his wife. As a result of his head injury, he develops amnesia and must learn how to overcome the obstacles his condition presents as he seeks to find her murderer.
Why You Should Watch: The depiction of short-term memory loss in this psychological thriller is perhaps the best of any movie ever made. The desperation to remember, the confusion, and the raw emotions that result are on full display.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Amnesia, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology
Reign Over Me (2007)
Quick Synopsis: Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) spirals into despair after his family is killed in the September 11th attacks. He becomes isolated and alone, and only after bumping into his college roommate (played by Don Cheadle) does he begin to repair the wounds of grief.
Why You Should Watch: Though the movie has its laugh out loud moments, it offers a sobering look at the very real impact of PTSD on one’s daily life. This psychological trauma movie may prompt discussion about the lingering effects of 9/11 on our country.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Post-traumatic stress disorder
Ordinary People (1980)
Quick Synopsis: After the sudden death of his older brother, Conrad (played by Timothy Hutton) has difficulty dealing with the grief and attempts suicide. After spending time in a mental hospital, he comes home to find that his father and mother have very different ways of dealing with their recent traumas.
Why You Should Watch: The actors’ performances of a family in grief and under enormous stress brings family dynamics to the forefront. The film also explores the therapist-patient relationship and offers a positive portrayal of the value of therapy. Though this psych film has an R rating, parents may find this movie appropriate for their high school student to prompt discussion about death, suicide and family dynamics.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Mood disorders, family dynamics, psychological treatments
28 Days (2000)
Quick Synopsis: Gwen Cummings (played by Sandra Bullock) steals a limo and crashes it while drunk. She chooses rehab instead of jail time, and though she initially refuses to believe she has alcoholism, she learns to come to terms with her condition and what it’s done to her life.
Why You Should Watch: The depiction of an addict in denial is spot-on in this top cognitive psychology movie, and though it deals with the very heavy issues surrounding substance abuse, in the end, it provides an optimistic outlook for overcoming substance abuse-related problems.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Substance abuse, psychological treatments, addiction
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Quick Synopsis: Will (played by Matt Damon) was abused as a child, and as a result of that trauma, has developed certain tendencies that prevent him from realizing his full potential. With the help of a brilliant psychologist (played by Robin Williams), Will finally get the counseling needed to overcome his past.
Why You Should Watch: Not only is this movie worth a watch thanks to Matt Damon’s performance of a troubled young man whose past continues to haunt him, but it also offers an interesting look at the therapeutic relationship and the value therein. Empathy, integrity and compassion are themes explored in this psychology film.
Primary Psychology Topics Explored: Psychological treatments, developmental psychology
B.A Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming
M.S.Counseling | University of Wyoming
B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts
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