The discomfort and apprehension is so palpable you can feel it just watching Men's Group, as six men meet for the first time in the leader's home to begin the painful cathartic process of talking about their lives. Half of them are ambivalent about even being there; some are there under duress, and all are struggling in some key area of their life. They're in pain, and their learning how to heal and sort things out by sharing it with other men. It's a practical lesson in learning to trust and how to do intimacy with other human beings, with no printed agenda or how-to-style self-help book to guide them. It's as simple and as difficult as talking about what's going on, and listening to each other... really listening.
I could relate immediately to this movie. I'd even visited the particular men's group in Sydney that it's modeled on a couple of times before recently finding a group more to my liking. The guys in this movie aren't just acting; they're being very real. At times the comments seem inappropriate but they're learning to stop self-censoring and talk about what's real. It's not always what they want to hear, but it does always end up bringing them closer together.
Paul the leader barely seems to know what he's doing and is struggling with self-doubt that he keeps very close to his chest. Freddy the comedian has a mask on to hide his discomfort, always making light of situations. He's deely hurt by his recent separation, and loves the daughter he no longer has easy access to. Alex is having problems with his son, and can't yet see that the problem is not his son but himself; he gambles to avoid the pain he feels. Cecil is an older man who says he's come to help the other guys with some timely wisdom, but really he's struggling with loneliness that really hits me. I'm not his age yet, but I feel it too. Moses has a drinking problem and is on-edge most of the time; the proverbial caged wild beast. Lucas is a corporate type with the look of a broomstick up his arse and so much contained anger it makes me want to scream.
Over the course of several meetings these guys gradually open up and learn to talk about what's really going on in their lives. The slowly drop the bullshit and start speaking their mind. Mostly they get support in return, but it's not all plain sailing. There's judgment and anger to deal with within the group, and issues with work, money, women and children outside. The dynamic intensifies when a tragedy strikes the group, and they start calling each other on their weaknesses and lack of responsibility. They become more accountable to each other, and to themselves.
There are many similarities between this men's group and the one I attend each month. We talk about what's really going on for us. It's men “talking about men's stuff”, without the prying ears of any women to distract us. When the pretenses are dropped, it turns out everyone is struggling with many of the same things. Having other men to be honest and emotionally intimate with has helped me learn to trust other guys more, to be more accepting of myself, to close the distance I feel between myself and other men, and to drop my ineffective nice guy act.
At one point in the movie, Cecil the older guy talks about the huge impact of a man's relationship with his father. He's hit the nail on the head and struck at the root of so many of our problems and failings as men: ineffective fathering. In a group like this, men of all ages learn how to father, and be fathered by, other men. While it's never quite like having an effective father of your own, it can help fill the gap. My own father has been emotionally distant all my life, and it's a loss that's often brought me to tears when I think about it. Even though physically he's still alive and never more than a phone call away, it's difficult to really connect with him.
To make this movie as authentic as possible, the actors only met in-character for the first time during the actual shooting. Character traits were developed and screen-tested in isolation before bringing the actors all together, and scenes outside the group revealing background details to the character's lives were filmed without the other actor's presence. There was little rehearsal and the group dynamic evolved spontaneously as each actor adopted a be-in-the-moment Meisner-like approach. The script was minimal where it existed at all, and each actor drew on their real life experiences while talking in the group. The awkwardness they felt reflected their genuine responses as each character got to know and like, or dislike, the others. Group meeting scenes were shot in takes lasting up to 45 minutes as the actors went through the process that a real men's group goes through, and the footage edited later to capture the most poignant moments.
I was taken by how realistic Men's Group was, and how similar it is to my own real life men's group. No man is an island when it comes down to it, and men need other men in order to learn how to be a man in today's crazy world. If you didn't get that from your father, and many of us don't, a men's group can fill the gap. It feels artificial at times, and there's a sense watching the film that a group like this is somewhat contrived; but in other social settings it's all too easy for men to avoid sharing the difficult struggles of our lives.
As one viewer remarks in the Making Of documentary, “You can't help but fall in love with these men”. Too many of us have been taught to hold back on our rough edges, and in doing so we become banal and difficult for other people to really connect to. The guys in Men's Group learn to be real with each other and to talk about how they really feel, pretense aside. In doing so they also become more human in their daily lives. This is probably the most powerful lesson from Men's Group for me: although some judgments will always remain, people connect with us when we're being real and prepared to be vulnerable, not when we're keeping up a façade of trying to be perfect or projecting what we think other people want from us.
If you're not in a men's group, I recommend you seek one out as it's one of the most powerful thing you can do to boost your masculine confidence. And check out the movie Men's Group to see what you're in for.