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Amber Stark, Pharm.D. Candidate 2016
South University School of Pharmacy

Erika Tillery, Pharm.D.
Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice
South University School of Pharmacy
Clinical Pharmacist
G. Werber Bryan Psychiatric Hospital

Student Perspective

Life As A House is the story of a broken family. It is set at a beach house on the coast of California. The movie depicts the end of life wishes of a man to reconnect with his family and build his dream house. George is a middle-aged man who has been living with depression. He has been building model houses for an architect firm for twenty years. After he is fired from his job, he has an emotional breakdown. He smashed all of the model houses that he had built during his tenure with the firm. He walks out the front door of the office and collapses. George awakens in a hospital, and learns that he has terminal cancer. After his diagnosis, George decides to take control of the last few months of his life. He tackles a life-long goal of tearing down his father’s old beach house and building a new house. George recruits his miscreant son, Sam, to help. After a meeting with his ex-wife, Robin, George brings Sam to his beachside shack.

Sam is a sixteen year old high school student. He is a self-proclaimed drug addict who has been using since he was twelve years old. He smokes cigarettes and marijuana, takes prescription medications, and huffs chemicals. He lashes out at his family in anger and is suicidal. He has even experimented with prostitution. His self-destructive behavior is likely due to depression and strained familial relationships. While George is tearing down his father’s old house, he explains the relationship he had with his father to Sam. George’s father was an abusive alcoholic who killed George’s mom in a drunk driving accident. Sam points out that George’s attempt to tear down the house is actually an attempt to tear down his father. This is the point in the movie when Sam first begins to help George.

During this time, Robin brings George and Sam lunch every day and assesses the progress on the house. She and George begin to spend more time together and slowly rebuild their relationship. She starts to bring her two children from her second marriage, Adam and Ryan, to the house. The entire family ends up helping George rebuild. As a result of his new relationships with his mother and father, Sam quits taking drugs and begins to enjoy working on the house with his family. He has befriended the next door neighbor, Alyssa, a sixteen year old girl. The benefit Sam has received from spending time with George and Robin is obvious. He has taken out his facial piercings and openly communicates more.

After asking Robin to stop visiting every day, George confesses his unending love to her. Shortly thereafter, Robin’s second husband, Peter, leaves her. Robin seeks comfort from George and then learns he has terminal cancer. George has not told anybody of his illness up to this point but decides to tell Sam as well. Sam did not handle the news of his father’s impending death well. However, after a conversation with Alyssa, he decides to continue working on the house. When Robin arrives back at the house, she finds George lying on the floor. He had to return to the hospital. While George is in the hospital, Peter returns to Robin. The family continues working on the house. Alyssa’s mother, Colleen, hires a crew to help finish the house.

With George still unable to leave the hospital and continue his work, Sam decides to hang Christmas lights from the house. He visits with George in the hospital and brings his bed to the window. George is able to see the house all lit up. Robin stays by George’s side until the time of his death. After George’s death, the family finishes the house. Sam decides to give the house to the now-grown woman who was injured and lost her mother in the drunk driving accident caused by George’s father.

Overall, the movie is accurate. While the representation of George’s attitude towards his terminal illness is idyllic, the decisions he made because of it are believable. Sam’s progress is astounding. He has been able to completely change his behavior by building relationships with his parents. One may wonder what happens after George dies. Was Sam able to sustain his attitude or did he suffer from depression?

Faculty Perspective

Life As A House is a 2001 film, directed by Irwin Winkler, that follows the dysfunctional life of a broken family. The primary characters include the father, George, played by Kevin Cline, and his son, Sam, played by Hayden Christenson. The film portrays these characters with mental illnesses, including depression and substance use disorder. Initially, George presents with the characteristic symptoms of depression including social isolation, anhedonia, guilt, and he appears quite disheveled. Sam exhibits clear patterns of substance use disorder. Within the first few minutes of the film, Sam is choking himself while huffing spray paint and masturbating to get high. Sam appears to be rebellious which is evident by his attitude toward his family, school, and dress. He has blue hair, wears heavy dark eye makeup, and has a variety of piercings on his face. He smokes cigarettes in the school parking lot, despite only being 16 years of age. Sam also exhibits signs of depression such as social isolation, anhedonia, fatigue, and suicidal ideation. Sam even attempts prostitution most likely due to his self-loathing and feeling of worthlessness.

Once George is diagnosed with cancer and discovers he may not live past the summer, he decides he will finally accomplish the task of tearing down his father’s house and rebuilding it. He also decides to have Sam come and live with him for the summer, hoping he will assist. Since George and Sam did not have a good father-son relationship, many barriers were presented. Sam did not speak to his father except to tell him how miserable he was.  Sam also takes George’s pain medications (shown as Vicodin in a prescription bottle) whenever he becomes stressed out. Sam acknowledges that he likes the way Vicodin makes him “not feel anything”, which further emphasizes his underlying depression. Sam smokes marijuana which George discovers and flushes, causing Sam to become irate. Sam even calls the City Inspector on his father as payback, hoping to cease building in order to let him go to Lake Tahoe with his friends so he can drink and party. When Sam’s attempt to sabotage his father’s house fails, he pitches a fit and confesses to using drugs since he was twelve because no one has ever cared what he does. 

During the confrontation between father and son, George confesses to Sam his experiences with his own father – how he always made him feel small. George tells Sam that nothing was ever good enough for his father, and if he could not make George feel smaller with words then, he implied, he was beaten. George voices his concerns to Sam because he reminds him of himself. He sees the same actions and responses in Sam that he had in himself all those years.  George calls Sam “barely alive”, and states that he would not be happy anywhere. This is the turning point in the movie for Sam. He begins to assist his father with tearing down the old house and building the new one. George’s ex-wife and her two sons begin to assist as well as the neighbor, Alyssa, whom Sam clearly likes in a romantic way. 

As George’s disease state progresses, he ruminates about his childhood again. He tells Sam about how his mother wore sunglasses indoors because his father beat her. George describes his father as a terrible drunk who one night drove while intoxicated and killed his mother and another woman, in addition to crippling a little girl in the back seat of the other car. George expresses guilt for not killing his father which may have prevented the accident. Sam listens intently and their bond grows stronger. The next day, George is found down on his bedroom floor. George confesses to Sam that he has been taking those pain medications for cancer, and he does not have much longer to live. Sam initially storms off because his father lied to him and he felt betrayed; however, when George is admitted to the hospital Sam returns to building the house and even places enough Christmas lights so George can see the house from his hospital window. George passes away shortly after, but Sam and his family and friends finish building the house.

While most patients who receive a terminal illness diagnosis develop depressive symptoms, George’s symptoms disappear. George even states he is happy for the first time in ten years as he is building his home. Perhaps receiving the diagnosis gave George clarity by allowing him to complete his life’s mission of, one assumes, building his dream house, although George is actually rebuilding his family. Sam undoubtedly suffers from substance use disorder, secondary to his underlying depression. Despite the fact that medical treatment for their psychiatric disease states was not listed for either character in this movie, the benefits of communication, talk therapy, and family support were evident in the overall treatment of these patients’ symptoms. Overall, Life As A House is a feel-good movie that is worth the watch.

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