Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Philomena Adoption Movie Guide

Philomena was recently nominated for Best Picture in the 2014 Academy Awards. The film is based on the true story of Philomena Lee. As a teenager in Ireland, Philomena became pregnant. Her father sent her to live at a convent. There, Philomena had limited access to her son. Eventually, her son was adopted, without her consent. Shortly afterwards, Philomena left the convent. She married and had children, and always kept the existence of her first son a secret. On the fiftieth anniversary of her first son’s birth, though, she told her daughter about her son. Encouraged by her daughter, Philomena speaks to a journalist, Martin Sixsmith. Together, Philomena and Martin travel the world in search of Philomena’s son.

The Adoption Connection

Philomena’s circumstances probably are not uncommon. Her son was adopted against her true desires. Her efforts to find him were hindered. The film captures the closedness and secrecy that some mistakenly believe is the historical norm for adoption, and it also shows the loss and shame caused by such secrecy.

Spoilers Ahead the rest of the way…

Positive Elements

Philomena has kept her son in her heart all her life. She wonders whether he ever thought of her – and she eventually learns that he has; although when she learns this it is bittersweet.

Philomena affirms that she did not abandon her son.


One of the nuns in the convent is particularly judgmental and cruel to Philomena. In one of the film’s strongest moments, Philomena forgives her. Martin asks, “just like that?” Philomena’s response is incredible: “No, not just like that. It’s hard for me. But I don’t want to hate people.”

Philomena’s reaction when her son is taken away from the convent is heartbreaking. It is important for adoptive parents, foster parents, and adoptees to grasp the love that their birth family has for them. In this scene, the love is expressed in grief, which could be painful to see – for birth family members, adoptive family members, and adoptees alike. Painful – but not necessarily bad.
Adoption is referred to as “selling babies.” Some people do view adoption in this way, but it could be confusing or challenging for young adoptees to hear it referred to this way in the film; it is left unchallenged.

Philomena explains why she kept her son a secret – she believed that she had committed a sin by having sex as a teenager, and didn’t want people to know. Shame and secrecy feed each other.

The circumstances surrounding the adoption of Philomena’s son are very unethical, and she was treated cruelly. Many adoptions are not marked by coerciveness, and young viewers of this film may need help understanding that.

Negative Elements

Martin initially only helps Philomena for his own gain. The convent also mistreated Philomena.


Philomena seems most likely to appeal to – and be beneficial to – adults. However, with some parental guidance, this could also be a powerful and insightful film for teens, maybe starting around age 14.

Questions for Discussion

If you relinquished a child to adoption, what would you like them to know about you? What would you like to say to them?

If you are considering adoption – will you pursue an open or a closed adoption?

If you are in a closed adoption – what stops you from opening it?


  1. The 'secrecy' is a big heavy weight for everyone in the adoption circle - even those adopted as infants. My life began in secrecy. I was a secret between my bio mom and her parents. I was a secret between my bio mom and my bio dad. While my adoptive parents did not keep my adoption a secret from me, I noticed that, once I had opened by adoption after I was 19, I still didn't appear in my adoptive family's annual newsletters even though I'd developed a friendly relationship. Realizing that you are someone's (often considered) 'dirty little secret' is a lot to come to terms with - no matter what the reason behind the secret was/is. I look foreward to checking this one out and seeing how/if it resonates with me.

    1. I should add that, while the weight is very real and heavy, there is a freedom to be gained by not choosing to live a life in the shame of having been someone's secret. To quote the bard, "Do not go gentle into that good night." Just as our biological parents had a choice (not an easy one that all) in how they could react to being (often unexpectedly) pregnant, those of us who are the product of those situations also have a choice in how we choose to live. There is no doubt the choices of the adults in our lives change adoptees, but we have a choice in what we can do too. Learn from it and move forward. ;)

    2. Wow, J. I love what you've said here - just as they have had a choice, so do you. That's really powerful. I'm wondering if you've ever put these thoughts in writing in a blog post or chapter or article or something like that. If you have (or if you'd like to!) I'd love to share it as widely as I can :) addisoncooperlcsw@gmail.com


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