How ‘The Intern’ Explores Transference and Its Impacts on Personal Growth

UPDATED: June 8, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 30, 2022
How ‘The Intern’ Explores Transference and Its Impacts on Personal Growth

Rewinders, you’re not having déjà vu. We’re talking about a totally different movie this week. It’s not The Internship. It’s The Intern. And it’s great.

I’m excited to talk about this one for a few reasons, one of which is that the rom-com queen, Nancy Meyers, wrote and directed it. In other words, you already know this film is going to have a lot of good kitchens, beautiful clothing and real people having real, human problems.

The Intern does not disappoint in that regard. But the film also has something many viewers might not expect: a deep and enlightening exploration of transference, complete with some takeaways we can all use to develop ourselves into the people we ultimately want to become.

Welcome back to SUCCESS Movie Rewind, the only podcast talking about how one of Sigmund Freud’s foundational concepts applies to a 2015 dramedy. Let’s do it. 

Transference is a tool.

First, the obligatory plot outline: Retired executive Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) gets a gig as a “senior” intern at an up-and-coming fashion website run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Ostin has some unresolved issues in her personal life and from her upbringing, and Whittaker is trying to fill a hole in his life left after his wife died and he retired. 

As you might expect from a comedy/drama, there are a few laughs, but the two characters also learn a lot about life, themselves and each other as the plot progresses. It’s kind of a spiritual sequel to The Devil Wears Prada.

In a sort of opening monologue from Whittaker, which is really him applying for the internship, he mentions something Freud said: “Love and work, work and love.” This quote captures the movie so well—Whittaker wants the internship because he has lost his love and work—but I don’t think it’s an accident that the quote is from Freud.

Freud was the first to describe the term transference, which is the thing most of us associate with movies or shows that include therapists. On screen, it is often portrayed as their patients falling in love with them, and the therapist says something about it being a classic case of transference. Unfortunately, this extremely handy psychology term has been reduced by that definition.

Here’s what it really means, according to the late Professor Doris McIlwain: Transference is the operation of the past in the present moment. In other words, it’s about seeing something from your past in something (usually someone) in your present.

I want to analyze The Intern through the lens of transference because this concept plays such an important role in the film. That leads me to our first SUCCESS Movie Memento™ for the week: Transference is a tool.

We see Whittaker and Ostin bringing huge aspects of their separate pasts into this moment in time in which their paths cross. We see them attributing characteristics and features of past people and experiences to one another. Ultimately, they use transference as a tool to change and move forward.

We can all learn from that. When you’re feeling big feelings from the past, remember that you’re feeling them for a reason. And if you look inward in the way your subconscious mind is asking you to, you can use what you’re feeling as a tool to foster personal growth.

Transference is terrifying.

Transference isn’t all roses. It’s also terrifying, which is our second SUCCESS Movie Memento™ for this week. 

Ostin is this sort of archetypal hyper-CEO. We meet her while she’s buzzing through the office—on a bike, no less—going through item after item on her crowded schedule. She’s managing everything at once as if she’s the world’s most talented juggler. We’ve all known—or been—these people before.

That kind of hyper-productivity is often hard to let go of. It’s an expression of the fear of something going wrong, whether it’s in your business, your personal life or somewhere else. If you’re in control of everything, you control the outcome of everything.

But we see in the film that, in order for Ostin to deal with some of the issues from both her past and her present, she has to let go of all of that and learn to stand still. For her, it’s terrifying—so much so that we see her try to get rid of Whittaker as an intern at one point because he’s, as she says, “too observant.”

It’s not fun to realize you’re letting issues from your past influence the way you interpret your present. In fact, it’s terrifying because you realize you aren’t seeing the picture objectively or even all that clearly. It’s you realizing you have some emotional work to do. But once you get past the fear and come out on the other side, you’ll be better for it—just like Ostin is in the movie.

Transference is an opportunity for transcendence.

That leads nicely into our third SUCCESS Movie Memento™ for the week: Transference is an opportunity for transcendence. 

Think about it: When these big emotions from your past rush over you thanks to transference, you’re not just experiencing an emotion—you’re being presented with an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to finally deal with these emotions and experiences that have been swimming around in the deep, dark pools of your subconscious mind all these years. They’ve resurfaced, and this is your chance to take care of them.

We see Ostin finally empowered to do exactly that, and it’s her transcendence that guides the film to its conclusion.

I’ll stop there for The Intern. Transference is such an important concept, particularly in the workplace, and I’m on a mission to spread the word. I hope The Intern and this podcast have taught you a lot about transference, and I hope I’ll see you next week as we break down Michael Clayton. Have a great week.

Alex Stevens invented motivational media criticism and reinvents the genre every week on SUCCESS Movie Rewind. Alex is also a lawyer, creative consultant, and artist, sometimes all at once. Alex lives with his family in Dallas, Texas.