Los Angeles Chapter — California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT
How to Win an Oscar
Writing About Life Transitions
In movies that look at internal themes and explore rites of passage, we tend to think the antagonist is the protagonist himself. It appears the conflict in the film is man vs. self. To a certain extend that’s true.
Look at stories about coming of age, (Almost Famous), mid-life crises (10), serious illness (Theory of Everything), drug and alcohol addiction (28 Days, Trainspotting), grieving, (Ordinary People), psychological issues (A Beautiful Mind)—they all feature internal struggles.
Films like those tend to make for great dramatic storytelling because they focus completely on the central character’s growth through life a transition, something everyone can relate to.
In the other genres, action, adventure, sci-fi, comedy, horror, for example, the protagonist also goes through a change, but in those genres the change is not the main focus of the story.
Films about life changes tend to win Oscars.Why is that? For one thing, there’s a universal appeal to these stories. Everyone experiences periods of grieving, coming of age, growing older, getting through a breakup, etc., so everybody can identify with these essentially human stories.
Because they explore relatable themes of life transition, they uncover a wider range of emotions, and create memorable performances. Screenplays that explore a wide range of emotions in a character attract the best actors. They had the best parts. Movies with great acting tend to win awards.
While it’s true that in these films the protagonist is often their own worst enemy, and can be considered antagonists, movies are a visual medium. Think of how it would look onscreen to just follow a character around during a transition and just hear their internal thoughts.
Yes, but you have to look at the films as a screenwriter, which means the protagonist drives the story. The antagonist impedes his progress.
It’s best to use an external storyline in a film that's about life transitions.The protagonist has a drive that moves the film forward. Another character impedes his progress, and that character is an antagonist. In a novel you could just deal with a character experiencing loss. You could explore his internal dialogue. But in a film you need conflict that shows up on the screen.
Looking at some of the best films in the “rite-of-passage” genre, it’s apparent the good ones have created an external antagonist (an actual person, not “depression” or “addiction”).
In Leaving Las Vegas, Nick Cage’s character’s drive is to drink himself to death after encountering some tragic losses. A beautiful but essentially broken prostitute, played by Elizabeth Shue, slows him down and almost stops him by offering him compassion, friendship, and a place to stay.
In Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper’s character (dealing with bipolar disorder) comes out of a mental facility driven to get back together with his ex-wife. Jennifer Lawrence’s character stands in his way, and eventually prevails, as they fall in love.
In Ordinary People, a young boy fails to save his brother from drowning and after his death, is wracked with guilt, and eventually attempts suicide. The antagonist in Ordinary People is his cold-hearted mother played by Mary Tyler Moore.
She not only holds the boy responsible for his brother’s death but goes on to make a big show of living her “perfect,” suburban, upper middle-class lifestyle, denying affection to her depressed son. She stands in the way of the boy’s recovery.
Let’s take a closer look at perhaps the best film in this genre, American Beauty.The protagonist in this story, middle-aged Lester (played by Kevin Spacey), is going through a mid-life crisis. In the beginning he’s laid off at work.
During his midlife crisis, Lester measures his expectations in life against how things really turned out, in a both a professional and interpersonal sense. Lester realizes that his best days are behind him.
After being laid-off and examining his life, he meets his daughter’s best friend a gorgeous 17-year-old blonde cheerleader played by Mena Suvari.
Lester plays around with the idea of forgetting all his adult responsibilities, and indulging in all of the activities that gave him so much pleasure as an adolescent, smoking pot, working out, selling burgers, driving cool cars, and getting laid.
In this film, Lester’s realtor wife (played by Annette Benning) is his major adversary. A self-absorbed, workaholic who seems to have lost all interest in her husband—and sex, she stands in his way of achieving his goals, which involve becoming an irresponsible dope-smoking, minimum wage, hedonist who lusts after a 17-year-old blonde cheerleader.
She has help from Lester’s daughter, played by Thora Birch, a beautiful and snarky high school girl at that stage in life where she’s embarrassed by everything he does. She mocks Lester’s regression into adolescence as “pervy.”
Lester is such an embarrassment to her, that at some point she even asks her boyfriend if he’ll kill her. He thinks for a while, then casually decides, why not?
Surprisingly, another antagonist comes into play in the form of the homophobic ex-Marine (played by Chris Cooper) who focuses on hating the gay neighbors who welcome him to the hood. The Marine gets the wrong idea when he sees Lester smoking pot with his son in the garage.
The ex-Marine gets very worked up, grabs a gun and goes over to Lester’s to straighten out whatever he’s up to with his son, and he clearly thinks it’s some sort of unnatural act. What we don’t expect is for him to, instead, kiss Lester.
In the ensuing chaos and homo-erotically charged aftermath, the ex-Marine shoots and kills Lester.
American Beauty examines the life transition of a middle-aged man.However, the script gives him motives, which are thwarted by characters, you could say antagonists, in the film. They include his wife, his daughter, the next-door neighbor, and the Marine who finally kills him in a fit of homosexual panic. American Beauty features realistic characters, acting as antagonists, and giving the film a visually interesting dynamic, and at times, an action-packed storyline, about what is, essentially a middle-aged man’s existential crisis. What could have been a movie with one long internal monologue becomes visually exciting and filled with conflict that plays out on the screen.
David Silverman, LMFT, treats anxiety and depression, especially in highly sensitive individuals in his LA practice. Having experienced the rejection, stress, creative blocks, paralyzing perfectionism, and career reversals over a 25 year career as a Film/TV writer, he’s uniquely suited to work with gifted, creative, and sensitive clients experiencing anxiety, depression, and addiction. David received training at Stanford and Antioch, is fully EMDR certified, and works with programs treating Victims of Crime and Problem Gamblers. Visit www.DavidSilvermanLMFT.com.
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