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MOVIE REVIEW

It's taut theater, all right -- but is it truth?

March 28, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Richard A. Greenberg's documentary "The Process" is a tricky business. It reveals how psychodrama, long recognized as a valuable tool in therapy, can help people deal with addictions and the effects of dysfunctional family life. The tricky part is that the slick way in which it has been assembled and compressed to fit a 70-minute running time makes the treatment seem easier than surely it must be.

We are told upfront that the film, unscripted and unrehearsed, will gather nine people, led by psychodrama expert Dr. Tian Dayton, who will be trying to put their lives together over a series of group therapy sessions. Right from the start the nine individuals seem like actors, and they in fact are. They are good-looking, poised and unfailingly articulate. They may be drawing on their personal histories, but the sessions seem as much acting exercises as psychodrama, which may be inescapable.

At the same time, the film's beautifully lighted sound-stage set is handsomely if sparely decorated, the use of multiple cameras adroit, the incorporating of family snapshots and home movies a sure-fire heart tugger. Everyone is casually but tastefully dressed and perfectly made up. Yes, the participants do serve up some real horror stories, but even when accompanied by tears, they are expressed with eloquence and precision.

There's a lot of painful emotion churned up in Dayton's sessions, which involve a number of role-playing techniques, but it's never messy as it so often is in life. While Dayton herself seems a notably calm, focused and inspired therapist, "The Process" seems much more theatrical than authentic, which could be seen as doing the psychodrama method a disservice.

Considering the film's glossy aura and tight running time, it was wise of Greenberg to focus on but a few individuals; indeed, we never even learn what's bothering most of the participants. But the chorus-like presence of the ensemble sustains the ambience of group therapy. Onika tells of her multigenerational dysfunctional family, mired in prostitution and alcohol abuse, and her need to confront her irresponsible, alcoholic ex-fashion-model mother. Rick reveals growing up with a sadistic, systematically abusive stepfather and a mother in denial.

But the central figure of the film is Scott, whose face bears scars and who uses a wheelchair because of a car accident that took the lives of two people, one a pregnant woman. When Scott regained consciousness, he found himself facing charges of manslaughter and driving under the influence of cocaine that resulted in a 13-year sentence, eight of which he served. Scott gradually rebuilt his life, becoming a marriage and family therapist and then a part-time actor. However, he remained unable to forgive himself for what he had done and turned to psychodrama for help.

Despite an aura of theatrics, it is not difficult to believe in the truth of what Scott, Onika, Rick and others have to say or that they found relief through psychodrama. It's just that "The Process" leaves us suspecting that the treatment took considerably longer and was considerably more painful and less theatrical than the ones depicted here.

*

'The Process'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Complex adult material, involving strong language and vivid depictions of dysfunctional family life and substance abuse.

A Greenberg/Seidler presentation. Director-producer Richard A. Greenberg. Executive producer Gary S. Seidler. Editorial content/lead psychologist Tian Dayton. Story editor and producer Dudley Saunders. Producer Dennis Sugasawara. Casting director Scott Musgrove. Cinematographer Michael Maley. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Exclusively at the Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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