Movie Review: 50/50

The movie that I chose to review is 50/50, which is a story about a 27-year-old guy name Adam who was diagnosed with a form of spinal cancer and given a 50% chance of survival. The reason that I chose this film was because I watched it back when it was released in 2011 and really enjoyed it, but after all that I have learned from this course I can now understand the conflict from an anthropological view. 50/50 highlights how cancer can change the lives of close family and friends in addition to the person who is diagnosed. The film follows the progression of Adams life from diagnosis to treatment, and all the way until he is free from cancer. Other main characters in the film include his best friend Kyle and his girlfriend Rachel. Everyone has a unique way of interacting with Adam after his diagnosis and they all play an important role in his treatment. Each character has their own explanatory model and the film exposes the importance of mental health in addition to physical health. All of these themes can relate to the concepts covered in this course.

The first concept that is brought up in 50/50 is the idea of Cartesian Duality. This is the notion that the mind and body are separate entities and should be treated separately (Lecture 3.1). When Adam’s doctor is breaking the news that Adam has spinal cancer he uses very complicated medical terms and focuses on the biomedical aspect of his treatment plan. Adam is clearly frightened and confused by all of this medical talk and barely responds to his doctor’s questions. Instead of helping Adam feel more at ease, the doctor immediately refers him to a therapist for a different form of treatment. This shows how the American healthcare system divides treatment of mind and body between two different professionals, especially when a patient is diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. Western biomedicine does not completely disregard the importance of treating the mind, but this treatment is kept separate from the physical treatment of the body (Lecture 3.1). Another example of this would be Adams girlfriend, Rachel, buying him a dog. Rachel’s explanation for the purchase was that dogs are proven to help with the healing process. She is referring to the idea that having a companion can help with mental health. The dog has no impact on the treatment of his physical cancer, but it may be able to distract him from the hardships that follow. 50/50 shows how the combination of physical and mental treatments impact Adam’s health.

Throughout the film you hear many explanatory models related to Adam’s diagnosis. Explanatory models are the ways that a patient, family, friends, and practitioners respond and talk about an illness episode (Kleinman). At first, Adam shows very little emotion when asked about his diagnosis. Everyone else seems to be more concerned than he is. Kleinman explains why some patients react this way by saying that explanatory models are associated with strong emotions that are sometimes hard to express. His two closest confidants also have completely different explanatory models. His girlfriend Rachel starts to cry and shows that she doesn’t know how to react to the situation. Illnesses can be difficult for family to cope with, and Rachel takes the news very hard. Later in the film when Adam is going through chemotherapy treatments, Rachel refuses to go into the hospital with him and is late to pick him up. This lack of support shows that Rachel is not being completely open about her feelings and that she may not want to help Adam anymore. Her explanatory model foreshadows her eventually cheating on Adam and the two breaking up. On the other hand, Adam’s friend Kyle is very talkative when he hears the news and is constantly asking questions and showing support. Kyle realizes that the best way to help Adam is by staying strong and being there to help him when he needs it. Based on Kyles reaction to the news, Adam realizes that he has someone who truly cares about him and will be there for him when times are tough. These two very different explanatory models leave Adam very conflicted. Rachel contributes to the overall negative experience of cancer while Kyles optimism is very uplifting and beneficial.

Films like 50/50 are crowd favorites because they appeal to the emotional aspect of an individual. When you take an unfortunate experience like cancer and show the ups and downs associated with the illness, you can easily capture the audience’s attention. Although the audience may not realize it, these films are telltale anthropological cases. For Adam, Cartesian Duality and explanatory models played a role in his treatment process. Thankfully the combination of western biomedicine and the support of his family and friends helped him to beat cancer. I think that this would be a good addition to the course because the characters are easy for college students to relate to. Most people know of someone who has had cancer, but many of those people would be older than Adam. Since Adam is in his 20’s, college students can understand the period of life he is going through as well as the relationships he has with his friends and family.

Kleinman, Arthur. Chapter 7 (excerpts) – “Conflicting Explanatory Models in the Care of the Chronically Ill” In The Illness Narratives. pp. 121-122, pp. 128-136

Lecture: 3.1. Cartesian Duality, Biomedicine, and “Spirit” (Or “What’s the difference between Medicine and Religion?”)


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