Look for…

Character arcs (change)

What if Dwayne/Frank were left alone?

Look at family alliances.

Why might family therapy help depression?


I will talk about




Family Dynamics


Then we will open for questions, comments, discussion


I Depression

Maybe I have Kurt Vonnegut on the brain, since he just died on April 11, so it goes.

But script writer Michael Arndt seems to have borrowed a name from Vonnegut’s

Breakfast of Champions in which

 Dwayne Hoover’s body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalance his mind.”


I don’t know that we have enough information

to diagnose the despair of either Dwayne or Uncle Frank

for the full checklist and time for a Major Depressive Episode,

so I’ll take a minute to talk about a couple non-standard aspects of depression.


Atypical Depression meets MDE criteria, but has a specific cluster of features


One is “mood reactivity”; that is, you may actually feel better when something good happens.


Another is “leaden paralysis”.  You may notice early on that, at times, it seems to be a major effort  for Dwayne to just move his body around.


There is also rejection sensitivity, which appears likely for Dwayne since he does not seem to have any friends, and asks only to be left alone.


Other features include overeating and oversleeping, and Atypical Depression has a tendency to appear in teenagers or young adults.

So, despite the apparent improvement in mood, you may want to keep an eye on Dwayne.

            Depressive Disorder NOS-does not necessarily meet MDD criteria.


A person may have persistent depressive symptoms, but not quite enough to fill out the MDD checklist. 

Or there may be recurring episodes that don’t meet the 2-week minimum requirement.

This category may also be used for a depressive person who also has delusional or psychotic features.

Uncle Frank may have attempted suicide during an acute s reaction to a series of discouraging life events.


Why might Family Therapy help someone with depression?


I think the suggestion in this movie that it can help create hope, show the possibility of change, if all family members are willing to work toward that goal.


Incidentally, thinking of the chemicals that “unbalance the mind”, research shows that successful talk therapy produces changes in brain chemistry very similar to successful medication.


There are a couple occasions, at the beginning of the trip and after Dwayne’s explosion, when it is suggested they might be left behind.  What might have been the impact?



9 steps/perfectionism

With these atypical or NOS forms of depression, I think

there is often a pervasive “negative voice or thought system” in the background of a person’s mind.  And this relates Richard Hoovers 9 steps system.


The 9 Steps: could be summarized as:  Try harder, don’t quit, winner takes all.


To Writer Arndt ,  exposing the limitations of the his system was a central theme of the story.  He expressed regret that he did not make Richard  “even more formidable.”


Again, I will refer to Vonnegut, and I will take a quote out of context from Slaughterhouse Five:

Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than any one with  power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor  They mock, themselves and glorify their betters.  Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.  They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves.


So some of the messages of persistence in Richard’s system have some value, but they run the severe risk of being distorted into that “Negative Voice”.


You wonder about the relationship with his father when Richard was growing up.


Edwin expresses some regrets for things he didn’t try.  Nonetheless, he appears to have had some financial success, since he was living in a fancy retirement home.  Did he live most of his life in an unsatisfying job, perhaps communicating resentment of his obligations?  Was this a model Richard was trying to avoid?


In the script, Richard is described as having the “Stocky; stiff-legged gait of former athlete.”  Was he trying to recapture some success he had enjoyed previously through his athletic talent?


 (Back story: Frank and Sheryl were bright; she might have chosen a career like Frank’s, but chose motherhood instead.  Did she expect more out of Richard, the athlete.  Was she attracted to him as a “winner” originally?  Couples sometimes come to resent the very things that initially attracted them.)





Friedrich Nietzsche is virtually a character in this movie, so he warrants some mention.


In “Thus Spoke Zarathrustra”, which Dwayne is reading in the movie, Nietzsche makes the famous pronouncement, “God is Dead”. 

This is sometimes embraced by Nihilists to demonstrate that meaning is dead, a sort of nihilist manifesto.

But you can also argue that it is the beginning of meaning. 

Dwayne seems inspired to action, to develop the power of self expression, albeit without words.  This is why Dad can identify him with the 9 steps.


Nietzche’s Übermensch has the appeal of being a path to self realization and individuation, but is also has the seeds of the Nazi’s intolerance for anyone who didn’t meet their narrow ideal of perfection.


 Family Dynamics (Character arcs)

lThere is a branch of Family Systems theory that focuses on the family structure.

lFor example, one aspect of the structure is having the family together for dinner.  It’s reasonable to speculate that this is a regular thing for the family.  Even Dwayne participates.

lIn two different family meals we see a similar dynamic structure.  It pretty much seems to be Dad against everyone else, with Olive in the middle.

lDespite some reluctance and conflict, the family unites behind Olive’s “Little Miss Sunshine” dream.

lThey form a real team to launch the clutchless bus.

lFamily unites behind dad’s plan after grandpa dies.

So one of the strengths of the family that is revealed is that the structures are not rigid, they are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.


This is something that a therapist can sometimes provide in family therapy, exercises or suggestions that change the family structure to reveal that flexibility.


Reviewers talk about family dreams.  This is also an aspect of the family structure.  Most of the characters are quite self-absorbed.  The whole family serves Olive’s longing; Arndt: other characters “not that sympathetic”

lRichard seeks success for his 9 steps. 

lDwayne wants to withdraw to his own world to prepare to be a test pilot. 

lGrandpa seems to have developed in to pure Id, wanting to be allowed unrestrained hedonistim

lFrank has committed the ultimate act of self-absorption—attempting suicide.  (Arguably, Frank had achieved his dream and lost it --#1 Proust scholar, relationship)

lDid Richard lose his dream?

Paradox: The family structure provides the support that permits most characters to be self-absorbed, to even express contempt for the family. 


Sheryl has deferred to Richard’s dream Mom is the only one seems to focus outward.  Jungians might like to have a discussion of the role of the feminine principle here.  She is essentially the vessel that contains the family’s dreams (Mom “Let Olive be Olive.”), but it is wearing on her. 

Deleted scenes: mom forsook career for family/Dwayne; Mom & Dad on brink of divorce. 


If a family strength is flexibility, the ultimate in flexibility is forgiveness, the tolerance of differences and error.


Dwayne’s silence is somewhat extreme, but tolerated. (Would you push (Dwayne to talk?)  Writer tried to make him extreme, hard to relate to, but is somewhat surprised that the audience identifies with him.

Even Dad credits him for having a plan.


Then, when he does talk!!

“You’re not my family.  I don’t want to be your family. I hate your fucking people. I hate you  Divorce, bankrupt, suicide…You’re fucking losers. you’re losers…[undoubtedly the world’s worst insult in this family.”  …”Please just leave me here.”… …


Yet, given a few minutes to collect himself:  “I apologize for the things I said.  I was upset.  I really didn’t mean them.”

The family accepts it, and moves on.


I can think of no more powerful statement in this movie, or perhaps any other.


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