10 Movies That Explore the Effects of Childhood Trauma

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10 Movies That Explore the Effects of Childhood Trauma

Trauma refers to a deep state of distress caused by an event or an accident that has long-term effects on an individual. If left untreated or unresolved, it may even undergo a snowball effect where the stress acts as a slow poison, causing irreversible damage to one’s life. This negative impact is primarily found in individuals suffering from childhood trauma who never manage to come out of it, even as adults.

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Several films like Good Will Hunting, Matilda, and Precious show how the role of a mentor or a support group can help troubled individuals heal and improve their life, but others like Mystic River and Blonde show the brutal reality of unresolved trauma and its dangerous impact. Here are 10 films that sensitively portray the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma.

10 Blonde

Netflix

The controversial film by Andrew Dominik, Blonde, went behind the neglect Norma Jean experienced as a child before she became the bombshell movie star Marilyn Monroe. The film is based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which reinterprets Monroe’s life with the lens of female agency, scrutinizing the man’s world of early Hollywood. The film takes several inspirations from Monroe’s real photographs and interprets the actress’s state of mind.

The film opens with a harrowing scene from Jean’s childhood when her house catches fire, and her mentally disturbed mother tries to drown her. She escapes, takes shelter in her neighbor’s house, and is later taken to the orphanage when no one can claim her. The film shows what follows in her life with no role models but big dreams to make it on the big screen, which only turns out to be disorienting for her identity.

9 Good Will Hunting

robin-williams-good-will-hunting
Miramax

Good Will Hunting shows the importance of a mentor in an abused child’s life. The film follows Will Hunting, an accidental genius in mathematics but works as a janitor at MIT. Will does not leave any stone unturned to mock the educated elite of the institution to boost his ego. When his talents surprise Professor Lambeau, he is mentored by therapist Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams.

After several rocky sessions, the two explore a friendship Will had never expected, and it is revealed both Sean and Will are survivors of child abuse. Maguire consoles him and tells him it is not his fault and that he should not be afraid to fight the inner demons that stop him from his true potential. The film was a critical and commercial hit, earning $225 million against its $10 million budget. It also won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and Best Supporting Actor for Robin Williams.

8 Matilda

Mara Wilson in Matilda
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Matilda is one of the most popular children’s films, depicting neglectful parents and a sadistic principal. The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Roald Dahl, and was directed by Danny Devito. The film’s protagonist is Matilda Wormwood, a child prodigy unrealized by her parents, who are busy bickering constantly. To make matters worse, the principal of Matilda’s school is a high-functioning bully. However, Matilda fights back her oddities with her superpower of telekinesis and gets support from one amiable teacher in her school, who becomes the sole voice of encouragement in her life. The film caricatures its characters so that it does not resemble any real person for a children-friendly viewing. Nevertheless, it gets the essence right in capturing the fragile world of the child.

7 Joker

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Joker (2019)
Warner Bros. Pictures

Todd Philip’s Joker works as a standalone origin story for one of the most iconic supervillains in film history. The making of the Joker in the film is starkly different from the comic book’s interpretation of the character, who happened to fall inside a vat of chemical waste that deformed his appearance, turning him against humanity and later the caped crusader of Gotham, Batman. The film has a much more realistic approach to the making of a criminal and mainly focused on the systemic abuse of the mentally ill and childhood trauma.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, who has a mental illness that makes him laugh abruptly, and struggles to make ends meet by playing a clown in hospitals and moonlighting as a failed comedian. The roots of his disconnect with society are shown to be his complicated relationship with his mother, who hid her past from Arthur. Upon discovering her abusive intentions, he kills his mother. Joker remains special as it sensitively portrays how Arthur descends to a life of crime due to abuse without villainizing him.

Related: 10 Times Joaquin Phoenix Completely Transformed

6 The Breakfast Club

The Breakfast Club in detention in The Breakfast Club.
Universal Pictures

The Breakfast Club defined the coming-of-age era of the ’80s in Hollywood, where adolescence and teenagers were seriously considered in films. The film follows a day of detention at Shermer High School, where five students from different cliques undergo detention. At first, all of them judge each other based on their first impression but find common ground as they begin to open up about their lives.

The common thread between the students was parental abuse. Claire is the social butterfly of the group and is subjected to immense peer pressure as she does not find a role model in her parents, who use her during arguments. On the surface, John is shown as the rebel without a cause initially but deals with physical and verbal abuse at home, which adds to his frustration regarding everything. Andrew is pressured by his father to succeed in wrestling and does not accept weakness. Brian is the brainiac, but is under such parental pressure that he contemplates suicide. Allison lies compulsively, while her parents do not seem to care as she turns into a kleptomaniac. The film bares the different shades of familial abuse, confusing young minds of their worldview, which can have lasting impacts.

5 Mystic River

Mystic River
Warner Bros. 

Mystic River does an apt service in depicting Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in child abuse survivors, which ends terribly for the victim. The film is directed by Clint Eastwood and follows the childhood friendship between Jimmy, Dave and Sean when one unfortunate day, Dave is kidnapped when the three are playing. He is sexually abused and kept in captivity for four days until he escapes. The film jumps to 25 years later when Jimmy is an ex-convict, Sean becomes a homicide detective, and Dave is a blue-collar worker. When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, he loses his grip and takes matters into his own hands to look for the murderer. When his suspicion falls on Dave, the latter cannot defend himself as Dave is still traumatized by his past, making him doubt his perception of reality. The film shows how the unfortunate event had a lasting imprint on all three’s minds while their careers were related to either crime or police, while Dave never came out of his past.

4 Capernaum

Two boys sit against wall
Mooz Films

Capernaum realistically portrays the refugee crisis in Beirut, with a child protagonist playing the leading character. The film is set in the slums of Beirut and opens with a 12-year-old boy name Zain suing his parents for negligence and for giving him birth. The film is then told in flashback, chronicling what made the boy take such a drastic step. Zain and his siblings grew up in an abusive family where dysfunction almost blended into the surrounding. Matters hit the roof when his sister marries a man much older than her in exchange for two chickens. Zain flees his hometown and meets an Ethiopian immigrant, Rahil, who struggles to prove her residence, and Zain is obliged to take care of her baby. The film won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was notable for casting a real-life Syrian refugee as Zain, whose life has significantly changed for the better after the film.

3 Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump - Forrest and Jenny
The Tisch Company

The emotionally troubled Jenny in Forrest Gump could never escape her traumatic childhood. The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis and was based on the novel written by Winston Groom, which starred Tom Hanks in the titular role. Gump was an intellectually challenged simpleton from Alabama who goes on a self-exploratory journey, crossing paths with iconic moments in US history from the 20th century. Forrest never forgets about his school crush Jenny, who grows up in an abusive household with an alcoholic widowed father and gets into more trouble as an adult. In an emotional scene, Jenny is shown revisiting her old home where she faced abuse, and she starts throwing stones while breaking down, confronting her childhood. The scene captured how difficult it is for an abuse victim to come out of their past and the lasting effect childhood trauma can have on a grown adult.

2 Precious

A woman looks out the window in a bus in Precious
Lionsgate 

Precious gives an accurate portrayal of the vicious cycle of abuse. The film is based on the book Push by Sapphire, which sheds light on a young black woman suffering from poverty, abuse and obesity. Claireece Jones, played by Gabourney Sidibe, is impregnated for the second time by her father. She is illiterate and constantly abused by her tormenting mother, Mary, who is trapped in her abusive cycle. However, Claireece finds hope in an alternative school where she finds her mentor Ms Rain, who helps start her journey of freedom. Mary does not make her path to self-acceptance easy, and they have to eventually face each other and confront their insecurities with the help of a mediator. Claireece finally understands her worth in front of her mother and decides to stand up for herself. Ultimately, the film emphasizes how a support system enables one to break free from generational abuse.

Related: These Movies About Depression Accurately Capture How it Feels

1 My Girl

Untitled (1200 × 630 px)-6
Columbia Pictures

When most films explore the themes of childhood trauma in retrospect, My Girl has an active approach to understanding childhood trauma. The film looks at grieving from a child’s perspective through Vada Sultenfuss, played by Anna Chlumsky, who knows her mother died giving birth to her, and her father is now dating someone new. This is hard to process for an 11-year-old as she begins to act out her insecurity about her mother getting replaced by another woman. To add to her miseries, she finally finds a close friend in Thomas, played by Macaulay Culkin, but unfortunately, he passes away. Vada sees the casket of her friend as the film ends, which makes one ponder how Vada will process her adulthood after such a difficult childhood.

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