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Your Mum and Dad: Therapy on screen

This film, released today, shows us therapy from one the few African-American Freudian therapists in the United States. Psychotherapist Mat Pronger reviews the Klaartje Quirijns documentary for Now Then.

I get really uncomfortable with ‘real life’ therapy on screen. It raises a thousand ethical questions about consent, foreknowledge, its subject’s ability to edit (or not) the final content and decide who the audience is. When done well, therapy on screen can start important society-wide conversations about mental health and how we understand ourselves. When done badly, it can be crass, exploitative, and in some cases damaging.

Taking its title from Philip Larkin’s relentlessly bleak poem ‘This Be The Verse’, Your Mum and Dad, is a montage of footage, weaved together with a big post-rock soundtrack. Footage of psychoanalyst Michael Moskowitz in therapy, explorations of the film maker’s own family traumas and input from psychologist Kirkland Vaughans rub up against home video and archive footage. It’s a dream-like, symbol-laden, hypnotic experience that is considered and well crafted. In some ways it simulates the strange reverie that so many psychoanalysts aim for in the therapy space.

Some scenes definitely leap out; Quirijns’ estranged father describing the loss of his daughter (the film-maker’s sister) is truly moving, and Vaughans’ interventions and observations are a highlight.

Your Mum And Dad

But there are also some troubling scenes here; at one point Quirijns appears to be coercing her mother into revealing family secrets to her grandchildren when she clearly doesn’t want this. When one of Quirijns' daughters is pushed to describe her relationship with her mother (who is behind the camera and asking the questions), she quickly shuts down, in a palpable state of discomfort. In the absence of any discussion about the terms on which these conversations take place, these can make for hard watching.

I don’t doubt that, for Quirijns, trying to interpret and understand her trauma in this film is hugely useful, and I respect her decision to include sections of the film that show her to be fallible. But I also struggle to know who the audience for this film is.

The decision to draw together both Quirjins' and Moskowitz’ experiences appears strained and big ideas, such as how the children of Holocaust survivors engage with their parents' trauma, feel under-explored. Attempts to draw some kind of ‘universal’ experience of trauma never quite land. Instead, the discussion remains deeply personal and individual. If you are watching this film to learn something about your own trauma, you might struggle to find much here.

Your Mum And Dad

Conversations about mental health have transformed in the last few years. Increasingly, these conversations are being democratised, or ‘re-politicised’, helping us talk about the differences and similarities of our experiences. But the de-stigmatising of mental health is not without it’s problems. After all, what’s the point of encouragement to ‘talk about our mental health’ if the services to help us do this are either neutered by austerity, over-subscribed, expensive, overly medical, or absent? But we are trying, and a big part of this is normalising the experience. Therapy and recovery are no longer exclusively lying on a couch and talking about your mother, but an awful lot of this film is just that. Recovery, healing and symptom management are all features of modern mental health discourse, and largely absent from the film. Very much like the Larkin poem it draws its name from, the film’s view of trauma is that it is an inevitable and inescapable cycle of hurt.

Somebody once told me that you can’t really understand Philip Larkin until you’re middle aged, at which point you can find solace in his chorus of “things probably wont get better”. Perhaps my struggle with this film shows to me that I am still too young and optimistic; my generation (Millennial) and Gen Z’s approaches to mental health are a far cry from Larkin’s cynicism.

Early in the film, Vaughan paraphrases famous psychoanalyst Erik Eriksson; it’s no good to simply get the skeletons out of the closet, we have to learn to dance with them. Quirijns certainly gets her skeletons to dance a beautiful dance. So while this is a very competent and at times poignant film, in the wider field of discussions about therapy and trauma, its perspective can seem strangely dated.

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Your Mum and Dad is in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema from 26 April

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