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SILVER SKIES: A Positive Psychology Film Analysis

Silver Skies shows us how full of love, passion, friendship and fun the lives of the elderly are, and how we can learn from this depiction.

SILVER SKIES: A Positive Psychology Film Analysis

“I went to bed last night and I was twenty years old. I woke up this morning and my balls were in my shoes.”

– Phil in Silver Skies

I’m partial to low budget independent films and to their filmmakers, those persistent artists who persevere through numerous obstacles to tell stories they are personally passionate about. They overcome overwhelming odds, working relentlessly often for years to keep their vision alive from the inception, through the creation, to the final product: an authentic piece of art filled with heart.

I’m also partial to positive psychology movies: those films that help us examine virtues, and make us think about how we treat other people. Watching positive psychology movies can be a wonderfully pleasurable method for personal growth. When I want to deliberately watch a film to look for and learn about character strengths, I regularly turn to Ryan Niemiec and Danny Wedding’s 500 page “Positive Psychology at the Movies“.

Positive Psychology in Film

Niemiec and Wedding do an amazing job of highlighting well-distributed auteurs like Robert Altman, Peter Weir, Mike Leigh, Richard Linklater, Wim Wenders, Zhang Yimou, and Steven Soderbergh, who frequently make films that show the human condition and provide stories and characters that help us think about how we can use our character strengths to connect more deeply with other people and our world.

But what’s hard to find are the splendid low budget independent positive psychology films – those authentic little pictures not backed by multi-million-dollar distribution deals, but which still manage to give us that same cinematic elevation. So, when I came upon Silver Skies, the second feature written and directed by Rosemary Rodriguez, I felt elated.

As Niemiac and Wedding write, “Good art is a sacred experience that touches that ‘unspoiled spot’ inside all of us.” Silver Skies is just that. Rodriguez’ first feature, also a gem, was the Sundance film Acts of Worship nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards. Silver Skies is currently scooping up wins of its own at film festivals around the world and becomes available this month to a wider audience on Amazon Prime.

Silver Skies & Positive Psychology

Nick lives with his best friend, Phil, in an old Sherman Oaks, California, apartment complex. Phil thinks he’s Dean Martin, which we soon learn is because he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Nick is doing all that he can to keep his best friend in his familiar community and out of an institution. But the owner of the apartment complex wants to cash in on rising real estate values and turn their homes into condos. As Nick and Phil and a group of retirees are abruptly told their homes are being sold out from under them, they have thirty days to either come to terms with being evicted or find a way to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy the homes they’ve lived in for years.

Lead by a wonderful ensemble cast, our heroes unfold the story with great chemistry: George Hamilton (Phil), Jack McGee (Nick), Mariette Hartley (Harriet), Valerie Perrine (Ethel), Howard Hessemen (Billy), Alex Rocco (Frank), Jack Bettes (Mickey), and Barbara Bain (Eve).

SILVER SKIES: A Positive Psychology Film Analysis

source: Roar Productions

I found myself feeling nostalgia and admiration watching the great group of actors I grew up watching in the 70’s and 80’s, actors with 50 and 60-year careers in an incredibly tough industry. I laughed at the raunchy humor. And I cried during a number of realistic and touching moments in these senior’s lives.

Using a nice balance of humor and drama, Rodriguez’s slice of life indie tackles ageism, elder abuse, and sexual assault giving voice to many in our society who are often made voiceless by our culture’s lack of diversity in filmmaking, distribution, and even film reviews. Her characters are people who still want to have sex, who want to hang onto the past where they had stronger minds and bodies, who want to make money and to have money, but they are facing a future full of loss: of livelihood, home, memory, erections, and bladder.

Those looking for a movie to watch using a “character strength’s lens” won’t be disappointed. Without putting in too many spoilers, here’s a few tips to assist you in your “strengths-spotting.” Become aware of your own feelings and stereotypes relating to late-life sexuality, intimacy, aging, economics, and body image. Take pride in feeling moved by the positive relationships and virtues being portrayed – and pay particular attention to the character strengths of Social Intelligence, Love, and Justice.

The Social Intelligence Character Strength

Silver Skies is a great example of the character strength of social intelligence. It contrasts the keen social intelligence of Eve and Mickey, a happily married couple, with Ethel, whose character displays a significant underuse of social intelligence. Though Frank adores Ethel, Ethel doesn’t have the social judgment to see that Frank is probably a good partner for her. Instead she seeks out her estranged lover, Billy, and initiates sexual favors in hopes he will give her free rent. And then we see the pain and consequences associated with the differences.

In his book “Why marriages succeed or fail and how you can make yours last“, psychologist John Gottman indicates that when the positive ratio is strong between the two, marriages can flourish. Eve and Mickey can almost intuitively sense the needs of one another, and they are committed to meeting the needs of the other. Their social intelligence directly feeds into their strength of love. Even when tried by extreme crisis, their relationship is ultimately characterized by honesty and forgiveness.

One of the main benefits of social intelligence is it helps people cope in stressful and painful situations, like being evicted from an apartment or being the victim of violence.

The Character Strength of Love

Psychologist Robert Sternberg writes about the Triangular Theory of Love, which interweaves passion, intimacy, and commitment. Analyzing love portrayed in the films we watch can be a good way of broadening our understanding of the ingredients that go into creating and maintaining positive and loving relationships. Unfortunately, later-life adults are often completely overlooked and trivialized in film, and their character strength of love is generally minimized.

However, loving is a strength of character that transcends age and today we know that one reason loving behaviors feel good is because they help us generate important hormones for well-being and healing. This includes oxytocin ‘the love hormone’ and vasopressin. They also generate endorphins that lower our blood pressure and reduce stress. This happens at all ages of life.

Love and Balance

Many of the characters in Silver Skies have an enduring love for one another, but Eve and Mickey’s marriage is exemplar. They have raised a family together. They are grateful and secure in their love for each other. They spend a lot of time together, and they appreciate and share in each other’s activities. Though they argue and have different character strengths, they are a disciplined couple.

source: Roar Productions

Living in the apartment complex, they have settled into a routine that works for them both. They help each other control their emotional reactivity and ultimately find ways to respond to real crisis in a loving and balanced and way. It is apparent that over the years they have worked as a team to build a meaningful relationship that they both cherish. They take turns exercising prudence and wisdom. Their signature strengths stand in marked contrast to Ethel’s poor social judgment.

Forgiveness and Passion

Frank, on the other hand, displays forgiveness. A widower from a long-term marriage, he has experienced being needed and being loved, and he has the social intelligence to understand one of the benefits of forgiveness can be a strong, committed, happy relationship. He doesn’t hold a grudge and he has the character strength to let incidents pass without it ruining a longstanding desire. Frank pines after Ethel with the same passion and excitement as a teenage boy.

Ethel enjoys feeling sexy and is always surrounded by beautiful flowers, but she has undoubtedly been tainted by culture’s overemphasis on the importance of a woman’s appearance. Many women grow up feeling loved more than men for their physical beauty. Certain aspects of women are often put on a “pedestal”, creating benevolent sexism that ultimately diminish women’s overall status in society. As Ethel perceives her looks disappearing with age, she feels unlovable and loses love for herself saying she’s nothing more than “a wannabe who never was. An extra who entered the studio through the backdoor and just blended in with the scenery. Look at me.”

Intimacy and Companionship

Nick and Harriet’s relationship illustrates another aspect of Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love: Intimacy and the importance of touch, tenderness, and honesty in a loving relationship. As Nick gently puts his arm around her, Harriet reassures him, “That’s a good start.” The importance of honest sharing and communication as the main ingredients of love is also a major premise of both Nick and Harriet’s blooming relationship and Eve and Mickey’s long-term marriage.

Silver Skies

source: Roar Productions

Silver Skies explores companionate love as well. The ensemble spend time eating and talking with one another, and ultimately friendship and the companionship between unique characters helps to relieve suffering. Nick and Phil’s relationship is the ultimate showcase for love in the face of adversity, with Nick exercising dedication, sacrifice, and patience. And Phil in his rare lucid moments expresses his desire for his Alzheimer’s disease not to burden his longtime pal.

Throughout the film the Silver Skies friends and couples express their love, teamwork, and social intelligence in a number of ways: they compliment each other and they spend a lot of time doing pleasurable and engaging activities together (dinner and breakfast conversations, golfing, listening to music, gardening, sitting by the pool, and handing out Metamucil cookies). Their bonds help them withstand the hardships they encounter.

Finding Character Strengths in Film

According to The VIA Institute on Character love is classified under the virtue of Humanity, which describes strengths that manifest in caring relationships with others. Using film to recognize and build character strengths like love can be a new way of identifying and strengthening our capacity to love and be loved.

See if you can spot the character strengths of Justice throughout Silver Skies, too. Eve’s strength of Justice is most noticeable. She rallies the community to fight. But Harriet’s strengths of Forgiveness, Hope, and Justice build up toward the end. What encourages this? Though she doesn’t have the same economic problems as the others, the rug has been pulled out from her life as well.

Can you think of other films that highlight the character strengths of Love, Social Intelligence, and Justice in later-life Americans? How do you think our entertainment industry’s emphasis on youth has impacted our society? Why do you think films portray seniors like they do? What are the negative consequences of our lack of knowledge and social intelligence about aging?

Do you think films influence how we age and think about aging? If they do, what is our responsibility as filmmakers, movie goers, and film reviewers? Or do we have one?

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Laurie Agard studied Psychology and Writing in graduate school after becoming a Director member of both the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of the Television Arts and Sciences. She associate produced ABC’s Secret Millionaire and wrote, directed, and produced two independent films that premiered on HBO, ABC Family, we TV, as well as networks such as Fox Latin America, Sky TV, Starz, Showtime, and Encore in 45 territories around the world. Her films have received New Comer of the Year awards and Best Children's Feature awards from prestigious organizations such as Kids First!, Hollywood Youth in Film, and the New York Film and Television Festival. She co-directed the Directors Guild of America’s first ever tribute film for and about its female members.

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