EnglishMovie ReviewsClinicalPsychotherapy, Clinical Psychology & CounselingLatest News

A Clinical Psychologist Goes to the Movies, Part 2

Films can be an incredibly powerful way to learn about mental illness and psychopathology – watching films relevant to mental health can help professionals to become more productive as therapists, and help students become more adept at recognizing and understanding symptoms and behaviors. To supplement the recent publication of my fifth edition of Movies and Mental Illness, where I explore more than 1,500 movies and the characters involved, I am pleased to present a series of “Spotlight” articles that will critically examine the psychological content of new movies as they are released.

This second Spotlight reviews the film Poor Things (2023).

Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos directed Poor Things, and it was released in December, 2023, starring  Emma Stone as Bella Baxter and William Dafoe as Dr. Godwin (“God”) Baxter, a deranged physician who brings Bella back to life after she commits suicide by jumping from a bridge.  Bella was pregnant at the time of her death, and Dr. Baxter implants her newborn baby’s brain into the deceased mother’s body, setting the stage for some of the humor – and much of the uneasiness – that we experience when watching this film.

Lanthimos uses a fisheye lens to illustrate the breadth and wonder of Bella’s new life, and he juxtaposes black and white scenes with color scenes to illustrate the amazing changes occurring in Bella’s life and fortunes. 

Although the film requires considerable suspension of disbelief, Poor Things is tremendously creative.  The movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar during the 2023 Academy Awards, and Emma Stone won both a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.  However, despite her recent success (she also won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in La La Land), Stone has had to cope with debilitating anxiety throughout much of her life.

Emma Stone’s Anxiety

Emma Stone has been open about her struggles with anxiety, dating back to age seven when she experienced her first panic attack.  In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, Stone describes how she benefited from psychotherapy and learned to reframe her anxiety as a “personal superpower.” Stone notes, “If you can use [anxiety] for productive things, if you can use all of those feelings in those synapses that are firing for something creative, or something that you're passionate about, or something interesting, anxiety is like rocket fuel.”  (Gross, 2024)

“She was a deeply nervous kid, ill-at-ease and prone to debilitating panic attacks . . . . Gravely concerned, her parents arranged for Stone to see a therapist. “It helped so much,” she says. “I wrote this book called I Am Bigger Than My Anxiety that I still have: I drew a little green monster on my shoulder that speaks to me in my ear and tells me all these things that aren’t true. And every time I listen to it, it grows bigger. If I listen to it enough, it crushes me. But if I turn my head and keep doing what I’m doing – let it speak to me, but don’t give it the credit it needs – then it shrinks down and fades away.”

J. Weiner (2019) describes how Emma Stone copes with panic attacks.

Can a Child Give Consent?

I was especially interested in seeing this film because a fellow psychologist had written to me about it, stating she left in the middle of the movie because she found it off-putting and offensive.   My friend wrote, “Bella Baxter may have the body of a grown woman, but she is giving consent with the brain of an infant.” 

It is clear that sexual activity before puberty is detrimental to the health of the children involved, and no one wants children having sex with adults.  However, Poor Things celebrates sexuality.  As Bella rapidly matures, she learns to masturbate, has intercourse with multiple partners, works for a while as a prostitute, and experiences an unexpected and unhappy visit by her former husband, whose cruelty was the basis for Bella’s earlier suicide.  While Bella eventually transforms into a mature, intelligent and assertive woman, her sexual choices along the way are clearly those of a child. 

While most reviewers have been positive about the film, and especially Emma Stone’s performance, noted critic Rex Reed (2023) wrote 

“Bella grows from a drooling infant moron to a mature young woman dedicated to a life of promiscuity . . . . Bella’s craving for more sex leads to an experimental plummet into sex work, which gives Emma Stone a buffet of opportunities to spread open her legs and reveal more than her acting ability. Degradation, sadness and horror—she embraces every negative emotion stark naked, devouring raw oysters and rutting like a pig. This is acting? “

In marked contrast, Leonard Maltin noted “No other film in recent memory can match [Poor Things] for sheer ingenuity, both in terms of storytelling and visual execution” (Maltin, 2023), and another critic called the film an “outstanding, beautifully smart, female-driven coming-of-age adventure that can fuel conversation for hours” (Mullor, 2024). Stone’s Oscar suggest that her considerable talents found a perfect venue in this remarkable film. 

Why Aren’t Brain Transplants Feasible?

There have been dozens of films that deal with brain transplantation, and the topic is a favorite and recurring theme in science fiction and literature (most famously illustrated in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818).  However, conventional wisdom holds that brain transplantation is impossible due to the intimate relationship between the brain and cerebrospinal fluid, the complex architecture of carotid and vertebral arteries, and the difficulties involved in reconnecting 12 pairs of cranial nerves.   Reconnecting a severed spinal cord and avoiding inevitable compromised immune reactions are additional difficulties (Canavero, 2022).  However, while noting these challenges, Canavero concludes his article on a positive note:

Contrary to common lore, a full [brain transplant] is achievable, at least theoretically. Of course, further extensive cadaveric rehearsals will be necessary, followed by tests in brain-dead organ donors . . . . [and] new surgical tools will have to be developed. With appropriate funding, a long-held dream may finally come true. (p. 598)

I personally find speculation about brain transplants unfounded and the future practice unlikely, and I’m confident I would never want to be a candidate for transplantation.

Be Sure to See this Movie

I loved this film; it is a tremendously creative fantasy in many ways similar to Guillermo del Toro films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. I suspended my disbelief, found the movie both entertaining and engaging, and I was not troubled by Bella Baxter’s exuberant emerging sexuality.  However, my psychologist friend was not persuaded, and she and I agreed to disagree (much like Reed and Maltin). 

I encourage you to see the film for yourself, sharing your impressions with me (danny.wedding@gmail.com).  Even if you dislike the film, I think it is one you won’t soon forget, and that is the defining feature of a great movie. 


Canavero S. (2022). Whole brain transplantation in man: Technically feasible. Surgical Neurology International, 13, 594 - 595. https://doi.org/10.25259/SNI_1130_2022   

Gross, T. (Host) (2024, January 31).  How Poor Things actor Emma Stone turns her anxiety into a superpower [Radio broadcast episode].  https://www.npr.org/2024/01/31/1227962804/poor-things-emma-stone

Lamba, N., Holsgrove, D., & Broekman, M. L. (2016). The history of head transplantation: A review. Acta neurochirurgica158(12), 2239–2247. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00701-016-2984-0

Maltin, L. (2023, December 7).  Poor Things is wild and crazy.  Leonard Maltin Reviews.  https://leonardmaltin.com/poor-things-is-wild-and-crazy/

Mullor, M. (2024).  Why Poor Things places sex at the centre of women's liberation. Digital Spy.  https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a46327335/poor-things-review-sex/ 


Reed, R. (2023, December 21).  ‘Poor Things’: See It And Hate Yourself in the Morning. Observerhttps://observer.com/2023/12/poor-things-movie-review-unquestionably-the-filthiest-film-ever-made/

Weiner, J. (2019, December 16).  How Emma Stone Got Her Hollywood Ending.  Rolling Stone.  www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/how-emma-stone-got-her-hollywood-ending-127346/

Zhavoronkov, A. (2022, November 22).  Can You Transplant A Brain Into A Young New Body? And Would You? Forbes. www.forbes.com/sites/alexzhavoronkov/2022/11/22/can-you-transplant-a-brain-into-a-young-new-body-and-would-you/

About the Author

Danny Wedding, PhD, MPH

Danny trained as a clinical psychologist at the University of Hawaii, and then completed a postdoc at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. After retiring from the University of Missouri School of Medicine, he taught at Alliant International University, American University of Antigua, and the American University of the Caribbean. Danny is the author or editor of a dozen books, the former editor of PsycCRITIQUES, and a Past President of the Society of Clinical Psychology.