Films in Peer Support Training

I have discovered a number of films (or "movies", Stateside!) that work well as training vehicles with young people learning about counselling and peer support. This is because their theme is relevant, relationships amongst characters are truly portrayed and explored, they appeal to this age-group, and (crucially) there are short segments that can be selected that are powerful and relatively self-contained. On this page I will describe a few of my favourites, together with their key teaching points. Later, I will suggest some other films that could also be used. As with songs, your students will doubtless have their own ideas and suggestions. I am convinced that using film in training gives students an invaluable opportunity to sharpen their observation and analysis - of character and motivations - as well as their empathy and grasp of narrative, and therefore their prediction of possible outcomes (even if they know the "real" ending!) For those studying Literature, Drama, Media Studies or Psychology, there is some additional gain to be had!

My first selection is Rob Reiner's surprise hit from 1985, "Stand By Me", in which a writer, played by Richard Dreyfuss, looks back at the adventure of his youth, rediscovering the intensity of feelings of that time, and the unappreciated turning points being lived through. It tells the story of a journey to find a dead body in the woods, but also of journeys and transitions at a number of different levels.

The power of the film is in its exploration of the crude banter, teasing and competitiveness of the four preadolescent boys, alongside their deeper fears and insecurities, as they travel together. There are powerful themes to do with each boy's family background, and how these inform their developing narrative of who they are and will become. Teddy Duchamp, unable to cope with the idea that his father was, as the junkyard boss unkindly put it, "crazier than a shit-house rat", hung on desperately to the idea that his father had "stormed the beaches at Normandy" and charged at life in a similar fashion himself. Gordie Lachance (the narrator in his youth) lived in the beatified shadow of his college-football hero brother, and his wit and talent for stories could never raise him in the esteem of his parents (or more particularly that of his father) nor compensate them for the loss of his brother. Chris Chambers, exquisitely portrayed by the late River Phoenix, is physically strong and athletic, and the group's natural leader. But he is from the "wrong side of the tracks" and confident only of his own eventual failure, despite the pleadings of Gordy. After the making of the film, River Phoenix commented that "People get so lost. They think they have everything under control, and everything's out of control. Their lives are totally in pieces." The film character meets his end as an adult intervening in a quarrel in a restaurant; in real life, Corey Feldman ("Teddy") tried to be the helper, after getting clean from drugs, only for River to die alone in the street from "acute multiple drug intoxications" (the coroner's verdict). Verne Tession is the stereotypical naive fat kid, craving acceptance and status in the group, yet inevitably the butt of everyone's jokes, as he expects to be.

There is a freshness and authenticity to the portrayal of the relationships amongst these boys that draws you in: students can readily identify with each of the characters and understand something of their dilemmas. There are key learning points around:

My second choice is the 1994 New Zealand film, "Once Were Warriors", directed by Lee Tamahori. This powerful and disturbing exploration of a family in the process of disintegration is rich in characterisation and presents social ills and cultural pressures starkly and sometimes violently. Once again there are key relationships to explore, with empathy more of a challenge in respect of certain of the characters, and as such valuable to any would-be counsellor. Identifying with the obviously oppressed is the easy part! Students will be challenged to analyse and understand at a number of levels:

Excerpts from this film need to be chosen with care, and it is best suited to a more mature group of students. It is likely to trigger emotion in many, and personal recollection of trauma in some, and additional support needs have to be anticipated, and time put aside, either by the trainer or by associated school or college staff.

Finally, in this section, some suggestions of other films with significant teaching potential in the training of young (or not-so-young) counsellors. With a few exceptions, this is little more than a list, but when time permits.....!

Sleeping With The Enemy (1991)(director, Joseph Ruben). Look out for the "apple scene" between Julia Roberts and Nancy Fish. An excellent example of informal enquiry and peer helping. And on a bus, not in a hallowed space.

My Life As A Dog (1985, Hallstrom)

Wings of Desire (1987, Wenders)

The Fly (1986, Cronenberg) A creature with less celestial wings! The slow metamorphosis allows time "to meditate on our fear of disease, death and change." (Pallot, 1994, Third Virgin Film Guide)

Village of the Damned (1960, Rilla)

Lord of the Flies (1963, Brook) Explores the "true nature" of boys taken away from the structures of "civilisation".

The Last Picture Show (1971, Bogdanovic)

Gregory's Girl (1982, Bill Forsyth) Painful adolescent shyness coupled with raging hormones, as Gregory tries to win the pretty girl!

It's a Wonderful Life (1946, Capra)

West Side Story (1961, Wise/Robbins) - especially the "Officer Kruppke song!

High Noon (1952, Zinnemann)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1977, Forman)

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (2008, Remi Besancon) scenes from family life over a period of 12 years - pain, tenderness, estrangement, transition...and very cool air guitar. French with sub-titles, but absorbing none the less!

Grease (1978, Kleiser) Hardly a classic, but good for some light relief and community singing!

Suggestions and comments are welcome, especially if you use film and other media for a similar purpose!

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