Film Review: 50/50

The movie 50/50 has been getting great reviews. As of this writing, it’s rated at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is a comedy/drama, based on the screenwriter’s own experience, about a man diagnosed with a serious cancer in his mid-twenties.

I hated it.

I was particularly disappointed because I expected to love it. More, in most of the reviews I read, the piece that drove me crazy wasn’t really even mentioned, partially, I think, because it’s a bit of a plot spoiler, but mostly, I believe, because it’s not seen as a problem (spoiler approaching), the fact that the movie concludes with the hero’s therapist becoming his girlfriend.

The therapist character, Katherine (Anna Kendrick), is a doctoral psychology student who is so new that Adam (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is only her third patient. She is somewhat inept, in a charming way, and acknowledges this on several occasions to Adam. Their eventual romance is portrayed as both his hope and his reward, for coming through the cancer.

What???! No! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Abuse of power, exploitation of a vulnerable person, violation of basic ethical principles, grounds for being terminated from a graduate program, career-ending for the therapist and potentially devastating for the patient. All the trained therapists I talked to about this movie agreed, wholesale.

However, when I complained about this plot twist to non-therapists, they thought I was overreacting. I got the eye-roll, to put it bluntly. Apparently, it’s only a professional that would find it creepy and wrong that a therapist dates a patient, particularly if the therapist is a young, cute woman, and the patient is a young, cute man. It’s hard to imagine a similar reaction if the therapist was an older, powerful man and the patient a young, vulnerable woman, however.

Why this apathy about the violation of such a basic aspect of the relationship between therapist and client? Why is such an action taken so seriously by the profession and so lightly by the (admittedly completely nonrandom) nonprofessionals I spouted off to?

In looking through recent research articles, it was difficult to find anything examining public perceptions of these sexual relationships. In the health professions, they are universally regarded as unacceptable, although, of course, it must be acknowledged that such misconduct still occurs. The fact that 50/50 presents this relationship as highly positive for the patient serves, I suppose, as an informal gauge of how most people feel about such a situation, as does the lack of criticism of this plot aspect in the reviews I looked at. (To James Kendrick of Qnetwork.com, however, kudos for noticing the numerous ethical violations involved.)

This disconnect between the dictates of the professional codes of conduct, and at least some of the public perception of sexual relationships between therapists and patients, is concerning to say the least. Is education needed? Or is it perhaps the attraction of someone falling for you who really knows you, inside and out, who is professional, powerful, and knowledgeable? … wait, I just described exploitation of a vulnerable person, not an ideal romantic situation. Perhaps that distinction needs to be better understood, not just by film screenwriters but by the public in general.

-Dr. Rachel Mallory