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  • Writer's picturecharlottewhitether

Drop Dead Fred (1991)

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

Drop dead Fred (1991)

Directed by Ate De Jong

Drop Dead Fred tells the story of Lizzie, a woman who goes through a stressful period in her life, resulting in the re-emergence of her highly destructive imaginary friend from early childhood. This film touches on two issues in particular which often come up in therapy which is why I have chosen it today. One is how we cope with a series of stressful life events, sometimes in unusual ways. The other is how we come to terms with abusive parents.

It is particularly significant that Lizzie suffers a string of stressful events, in just one day in face, not just one. This is something which often happens in life and which can result in our resilience falling short, and us feeling the need to seek therapy as an additional support. While we might have bounced back from one setback, it can take a lot more work to recover from several. As humans we can of course only tolerate so much. For Lizzie this includes losing her job as a court typist, discovering her husband is having an affair, and sinking her best friend’s houseboat (played by the wonderful Carrie Fisher). Drop Dead Fred, who is gregarious, outrageous, and silly, soon arrives telling her he is there because she ‘isn’t happy, 'so why don’t you get happy.’ We soon discover other long-standing stressors in Lizzie’s life, which hastened the arrival of DDF in the first instance. She has a highly critical, emotionally abusive mother (Polly). Polly wants Lizzie to reconcile with her husband, despite his actions, believing he is too good for her daughter. She seems to hold the belief that a wife's role is to keep her husband happy. Something Polly didn't manage to do in her own relationship. I particularly like that this film challenges the patriarchy, seeing Lizzie learn to make her own decisions as an individual, and giving her an opportunity to be playful in ways which are usually reserved for boys.

One way of thinking about DDF is that he is the enactment of all the childhood rage and rebellion Lizzie wasn’t allowed to express. Nice little girls don't get angry. They encouraged to be quiet, invisible, or serving other people's needs. In my therapeutic work it is an almost universal experience for women that we have to learn in adulthood how to engage with our anger. Even to admit being angry can be extremely challenging for some. For me anger is a life force, a necessary emotion to let us know when our boundaries are crossed, and natural part of the complexities of human experience. Of course this is an emotion that is challenged by the patriarchy as it puts in touch which what we really feel instinctively, and a respect for instincts makes people harder to control. It is often one of the first things challenged by coercive relationships, and cults for example.

DDF is also fun in his rebellion, but importantly he takes aim at her mother in particular. He makes mud pies on the dining room table (in a house concerned with cleanliness and presentation) and names her mother ‘the mega bitch.’ Her parents are very sadly at odds with each other, with her father attempting to be caring, while her mother a strict disciplinarian who projects her own failings onto Lizzie. Lizzie’s mother cruelly tells her ‘I had a child to save a marriage.’ Polly cannot tolerate or look at her own difficulties, she is without insight, and therefore Lizzie shoulders all the responsibility. We know that Lizzie's father left, seemingly because of Polly’s lack of maternal warmth (of course not because of Lizzie) and his inability to cope with the family situation. Lizzie is therefore left unprotected, open to the harms of a mother who blames her. Who better to come in and bridge this painful psychological gap than a rambunctious DDF.

DDF offers Lizzie something more powerful than just relief from her emotional repression, he also loves and protects her in a way that no one else does. Lizzie says of her mother ‘she found out how to hurt me, and when she knew how she did it all the time.’ DDF on the other hand, despite his apparent destruction, does really have her best interests at heart. He does not want her to be with the partner if she isn't happy with him. He encourages her to be more assertive, playful, and joyful. When Lizzie is ready, DDF moves on to another child who needs him, and he becomes invisible to her again. This made me think of the notion of going back to things and tools which helped us in the past when we are facing difficult times. It might be music, films, foods, locations where we were happy as children, or conversations with old friends. But they connect us with the a time when we needed comfort and we found it. Lizzie doesn't need this psychological support forever, just at this specific moment in her life. DDF also acts as a reminder of how much we need friends in these times, people who understand us in a longer term way, who have the context of our struggles. I love the idea that DDF is always around, supporting children in the neighbourhood. He is never really gone, and Lizzie says to his new child 'send him my love.'

In the final chapter we go through a surreal maze of colourful, Dali-esque past experiences and characters until Lizzie defeats her husband and mother, and finds a way out. Despite how literal this is it works well as a cinematic device. By the end of the film Lizzie achieves something that can be extremely difficult to do in real life (if indeed people want to do it at all) she achieves compassion for her mother. This does not mean she changes her boundaries, but she is able to give her mother the useful advice, from the heart, ‘get a friend.’ She hands back the problems she has been given, which are not actually hers, and encourages her mother to face them. It is a profound reminder that we are not responsible for our parent’s happiness, and that they often have their own difficulties which we cannot solve for them. Sometimes we can move past the impact they have had on us, and at other times we live with it as best we can. I am left wondering what type of imaginary friend Polly might need, I'm guessing someone kind who can can help her face herself without shame. I wonder if you had an imaginary friend what it might be like...? Maybe this film is saying, whatever the situation we find ourselves in, however hopeless, we can use our creativity to meet that unmet need in ourselves, and continue to offer ourselves the hand of kindness when no one else will.

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