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Man vs. Self; Films About Life Transitions

In movies that look at internal themes and explore rites of passage, such as 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), we tend to think that the antagonist is the protagonist himself.

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.

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. They also tend to win Oscars.

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.

You absolutely need an external storyline in a film that’s about life transitions, as well as an internal storyline. 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. 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 eventuallyattempts 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.l

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, a

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 behinds him.

After being laid-off and examining his life, he meets his daughter’s best friend a gorgeous 17 years 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, the 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, an Academy Award winning film, by the way, examines the life transition of a middle-aged man, but gives him motives, which are thwarted by characters, including his wife, his daughter, and the neighbor who kills him.

To recap; the movie features real characters, acting as antagonists, and giving the film an visually interesting dynamic and at times, action-packed storyline, about what is, essentially an middle-aged man’s existential crisis.

You only get one chance to send your screenplay out in its best possible shape. How long did you spend writing that script? A year? Don’t blow it. Be sure it’s the best it can be.  Get feedback on from a veteran screenwriter. –David Silverman.  

Image credit: Creative Commons, Trainspotting, 2003 by Don Merwin, is licensed under CC By 2.0

Man vs. Self; Films About Life Transitions

David Silverman, MA, LMFT

A lot of careers can really knock you around. The competition is fierce, in graphic design, journalism, you name it -- especially in creative careers in Hollywood. Writers and performers get slammed with rejection constantly. If you're going through something -- anxiety, addiction or depression -- I help people like you get through it. And thrive. Let me help you get your dream back on track.

Please check out my website: My story: my brother grew up with a severe case of OCD, and while I just a kid --- in family therapy with him, I witnessed a miracle as he was transformed, and now is enjoying the life he deserves. I went to Stanford University to study Psychology, and USC Film. I've worked in FIlm/TV and experienced high levels of anxiety, and got slammed with rejection myself. I learned how to get through it. Today, I love to help people to regain the lifestyle they deserve.

David Silverman Psychotherapy

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APA Reference
Silverman, D. (2016). Man vs. Self; Films About Life Transitions. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Apr 2016
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