18 Must-See Films For Psychology Students
Whether you're considering or enrolled in an on-campus or online psychology program, check out this list of must-see movies for all psychology students.
A pioneer of French cinema, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard said, "Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self."
Film as art is certainly no exception when it comes to capturing our minds and imaginations. Film provides a powerful medium for exploring what it means to be human, offering us a glimpse into human nature at its best, its worst and everywhere in between.
Perhaps that's why there is no shortage of films that explore the gamut of psychological topics – making film a popular tool for teaching psychology.
While there are hundreds of films that could be included on a list of movies that deal with psychology, here are a handful recommended by Saint Leo psychology faculty – all 'must sees' for students in online psychology degree programs.
Drama (1957)Topics: Social, moral developmentActors: Henry Fonda, John FiedlerPlot: A diverse group of 12 jurors deliberates the fate of an 18-year-old Latino accused of murdering his father. As a lone dissenting juror tries to convince the others that the case is not as open-and-shut as it appears, individual prejudices and preconceptions about the trial emerge.Recommended by: Dr. Lara AultWhy recommended: The movie has tremendous lessons and value in social psychology. It addresses prejudice, conformity, aggression, group interaction, leadership, persuasion, and other basic areas of social psychology and the study of normal human behavior.
Drama/romance (2000)Topics: Substance abuse disorders/alcoholismActors: Sandra Bullock, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic WestPlot: Sandra Bullock plays a newspaper columnist who chooses to enter a rehabilitation center for alcoholism in lieu of jail time for stealing a limousine at her sister's wedding and crashing it. Initially in denial that she is an alcoholic and resistant to treatment, with the help of fellow patients, she eventually begins to re-examine her life and comes to terms with her alcoholism and addiction to prescription medications.Recommended by: Dr. Glenn LoweryWhy recommended: This movie models good counseling skills and promotes optimism, while dealing with serious substance abuse issues.
Drama (2001)Topics: Abnormal psychology, psychotic disorders/schizophreniaActors: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer ConnellyPlot: Based on the life of mathematical genius and Nobel Laureate John Forbes Nash, who suffers from severe mental illness, this film won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.Recommended by: Dr. Antonio LaverghettaWhy recommended: The film sheds light on the life and suffering of a person living with schizophrenia. Psychology students will notice that Nash exhibits many of the symptoms used to diagnose schizophrenia and can follow the increasing intensity of these symptoms and the effect on him and those around him. The film also shows the difficult task of managing the disorder and the importance of social support.
Biographical/sport (2009)Topics: Social psychology, including social influence, family relationsActors: Quinton Aaron, Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Kathy BatesPlot: "The Blind Side" is the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless African-American boy who is adopted by a wealthy white family, the Tuohys. Michael realizes his full potential, succeeding in school and becoming a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft.Recommended by: Dr. Helen OderindeWhy recommended: This film does a good job of highlighting some of the difficulties and misunderstandings that take place when people of different cultures attempt to bridge cultural and racial differences and connect on an intimate level. The film also shows how mutually beneficial this engagement can be: the Tuohys open the door to educational and financial opportunity for Michael and he, in turn, opens their minds.
Comedy/drama (1989)Topics: Social psychology, developmental psychology/aging, Alzheimer's diseaseActors: Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman, Dan AkroydPlot: The movie begins in 1948 when, at the insistence of her son who decides his mother must stop driving, Miss Daisy Werthan, a wealthy Jewish Southern woman, hires an African-American chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. The story of their friendship unfolds over the following 25 years as they overcome their differences and discomforts and develop a loving friendship.Recommended by: Dr. Antonio LaverghettaWhy recommended: In addition to addressing the degenerative nature of Alzheimer's disease, this film explores some of the big questions of interest in the field of social psychology: how prejudice develops and how it can be overcome.
Drama/thriller (2002)Topics: Social psychology, domestic violenceActors: Jessica Jennifer Lopez, Billy Campbell, Tessa AllenPlot: Based on the Anna Quindlen novel, "Black and Blue," the film is about a working-class waitress named Slim who thinks she has married the man of her dreams. After the birth of their first child, he becomes controlling and abusive. Slim escapes from him several times, moving to different parts of the country with her daughter, but her husband tracks her down. She decides to prepare herself to fight back by learning Krav Maga self-defense techniques.Recommended by: Dr. Tammy ZacchilliWhy recommended: Portraying a physical and psychological battle between the two main characters, this movie addresses the challenges of dealing with and escaping from an abusive relationship.
Drama (1997)Topics: Social and developmental psychology, treatment, giftednessActors: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie DriverPlot: Will Hunting is a young, headstrong janitor at MIT with exceptional mathematical abilities. Abused as a child, he has numerous run-ins with the law and does not realize his full potential. With the help of a psychology professor, he finally receives the counseling he needs that will enable him to find his identity and change his life.Recommended by: Dr. Glenn LoweryWhy recommended: "Good Will Hunting." serves as a good teachable opportunity. This movie depicts a difficult therapeutic relationship between an ambivalent client and a somewhat unorthodox counselor.
Biographical/sport (1991)Topics: Social psychology including prejudice, discrimination, violence, civil rightsActors: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara UngerPlot: This film is based on the life of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a top-ranked, African-American boxer who, in 1966, is expected to become a world champion when he is wrongly imprisoned for a triple murder. His appeals are rejected and his case seems hopeless until a teenage boy and his foster family find new evidence that eventually leads to his release two decades later.Recommended by: Dr. Bob JacobsWhy recommended: "The Hurricane" highlights our ability to transcend our circumstances through internal change.
Thriller/mystery (2003)Topics: Psychotic disorders, forensic psychologyActors: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda PeetPlot: A group of strangers from different walks of life are forced to find shelter during a torrential rainstorm at an out-of-the-way Nevada desert motel. One-by-one, they are killed off. Meanwhile, in a related storyline, a psychiatrist tries to prove the innocence of a man accused of murder.Recommended by: Dr. Lara AultWhy recommended: "Identity" deals with a unique and controversial disorder (it's a spoiler if I name it). It plays on some misconceptions about the disorder, but has a radical therapy suggestion that is intriguing. It is also an exciting murder mystery.
Crime thriller (2000)Topics: Neuropsychology, memory loss/amnesiaActors: Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe PantolianoPlot: Leonard Shelby is an ex-insurance investigator who sustains a head injury when trying to prevent his wife's murder and now suffers from amnesia. He learns how to cope with his condition using notes and tattoos as he tries to find the murderer and avenge her death.Recommended by: Dr. Lara AultWhy recommended: "Memento" deals with a person with short-term memory loss trying to solve a mystery. It is accurate, in many ways, regarding what life might be like for someone who cannot remember for more than a few minutes or seconds at a time. It is fascinating in a cognitive sense, as well as moving and emotionally engaging (and exciting).
Romance (2004)Topics: Clinical and social psychology, cultural differences, Alzheimer's diseaseActors: Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands, James GarnerPlot: A poor young man, Noah Calhoun, falls in love with a young heiress, Allie Hamilton, during the summer of 1940. When Allie's mother finds out, she bans her from seeing Noah and the family leaves their summer home on Seabrook Island and returns to Charleston. World War II intervenes and Allie and Noah go on with their lives but are reunited years later.Recommended by: Dr. Tammy ZacchilliWhy recommended: I show clips of this movie in my close relationships class because you can examine how love and relationships change over time. It is also relevant to developmental psychology because one of the characters has Alzheimer's disease.
Drama/comedy (1981)Topics: Neuropsychology/dementia, marital/family dynamicsActors: Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane FondaPlot: This Academy Award winner for Best Actor and Best Actress tells the story of elderly couple, Norman and Ethel Thayer, who return to their summer cottage while dealing with Norman's failing memory, onset of senility and strained relationship with his daughter.Recommended by: Dr. Mark BenanderWhy recommended: This movie is full of great explorations of so many fundamental aspects of human nature, including family relationships, aging, death and dying, personal growth, and forgiveness. We are also treated to ways in which elements of nature such as a beautiful woodland lake, a treacherous cove, a dive into crisp clear water, and a family of loons can illuminate the powerful psychological dynamics of being human.
Drama (1975)Topics: Personality/mood disorders, forensic psychology, treatmentActors: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William RedfieldPlot: Randle McMurphy has a criminal past. To escape his most current prison sentence, he pleads insanity so that he can be sent to a mental institution where he thinks he can serve his sentence more comfortably than in jail. Upon admittance, he rallies the other patients into rebellion against the oppressive Nurse Ratched.Recommended by: Dr. Kevin KiefferWhy recommended: This Academy Award-winning classic is a must-see film for psychology students. It provides a disturbing look into mental hospitals in the 1960s, including electroshock therapy as a form of treatment and a dysfunctional form of group psychotherapy.
Drama (1980)Topics: Family dynamics, stress and coping, mood disorders, therapyActors: Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Judd HirschPlot: When his older brother dies unexpectedly, guilt and grief push Conrad Jarrett to attempt suicide. After spending six months in a mental hospital, he returns home, sees a psychiatrist, and tries to return to normal. His parents each react differently to the trauma; his father attempts to deal with his grief, while his mother remains in denial, angry and depressed.Recommended by: Dr. Kevin KiefferWhy recommended: This film sheds realistic light on how one family deals with trauma and the resulting breakdown of the family unit. It offers a positive, affirming portrayal of a therapist and the value of therapy in helping Conrad and his father heal.
Comedy/drama (1988)Topics: Neuropsychology/autism, marital/family dynamicsActors: Dustin Hoffmann, Tom Cruise, Valeria GolinoPlot: "Rain Man" is the story of a hustler, Charlie Babbit, and his brother, Raymond, an autistic savant unknown to Charlie who is living in an institution. When the brothers' father dies and leaves his fortune in trust to Raymond, Charlie sets out on a scheme to gain custody of Raymond and control of the money during a classic cross-country road trip.Recommended by: Dr. Antonio LaverghettaWhy recommended: This film shed light on autism at time when there was little public awareness of the syndrome. Raymond exhibits many of the classic behaviors of a high-functioning autistic. As Charlie begins to understand Raymond more, he learns how to manage the stress associated with being his caregiver and becomes a better person.
Drama (1991)Topics: Neuropsychology, retrograde amnesia, marital/family dynamicsActors: Harrison Ford, Annette Benning, Michael HaleyPlot: Henry is a hard-driven lawyer who is shot in the head during a robbery and suffers brain damage. He emerges from a coma with retrograde amnesia. As he struggles to recover his speech and mobility and regain his memory, he experiences a shift in values and builds a new life for his family and himself.Recommended by: Dr. Antonio LaverghettaWhy recommended: While real-life cases of retrograde amnesia are actually quite rare, films tend to depict it as fairly common occurrence and, therefore, often promote inaccuracies. Despite that fact, this movie does a good job showing how retrograde amnesia can have a significant impact on individuals and their families – sometimes for good or ill.
Family drama (2007)Topics: Post-traumatic stress disorderActors: Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett SmithPlot: The grief that Charlie Fineman experiences after losing his family in the September 11 attack on New York City causes him to quit his job and isolate himself. After a chance encounter, he rekindles his friendship with his old college roommate, Alan Johnson, who helps him to face his past and rebuild his life.Recommended by: Dr. Mark BenanderWhy recommended: "Rein Over Me" is an entertaining movie, replete with laughs and more sober, thought-provoking scenes, but it also demonstrates some of the ways in which PTSD can impact the life of the affected individual as well as everyone in his or her life.
Musical romance (2001)Topics: Social psychology, interracial relationships, peer pressure, violenceActors: Julia Stiles, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kerry WashingtonPlot: Sara, a white girl who has lived in the suburbs, is forced to relocate to Chicago's inner city. With the move comes a new school with a predominately African-American student body, and Sara's new boyfriend is a black teen, Derek, with whom she shares a love for dance.Recommended by: Dr. Helen OderindeWhy recommended: "Save the Last Dance is centered on a teenage, interracial romance and the couple's relationship with others. They continually meet with social and cultural conflict over their relationship and have to work hard to overcome prejudice and rise above cultural and social pressures.
What other films would you add to this list?
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