Socialworkersspeaks on FacebookFollow Us on TwitterRSS Feed

Social Worker Review: “Case 39″ Reinforces Stereotypes

Case 39
Category: Horror

Review by Sherry Saturno:

RATING (Out of 5 Megaphones):

PLOT: Earnest Child Services Social Worker Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) uncovers what she believes to be horrific abuse and neglect suffered by 10-year-old Lillith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland). Passionate and driven, Emily enlists the aid of her detective friend  Mike Barron (Ian McShane)  to intervene and rescue young Lily from being burned alive in a gas oven by her parents, Edward and Margaret Sullivan (Callum Keith Rennie and Kerry O’Malley).

Emily is haunted by her own childhood demons involving her unstable mother, and is deeply touched by Lily’s suffering and isolation. When Lily begs her not to put her into foster care, Emily petitions for legal guardianship and takes her into her home.

Lily begins therapy sessions with psychologist Dr. Doug Ames (Bradley Cooper) where she reveals to him dark aspects of her personality that unnerve and threaten him. Gradually, people around Lily begin to die. A young boy in her therapy group suddenly murders his parents. Dr. Ames dies as well. Emily begins to suspect that Lily is not what — or whom — she seemed.

Renee Zellweger and Jodelle Ferland in Case 39.

Emily’s idealism begins to unravel, and she unsuccessfully attempts to rescind guardianship of Lily. She breaks down, alternating between fits of anger and overwhelmed by a sense of loss. Realizing that everyone around Lily is at risk, she desperately formulates a plan.

WHY SOCIAL WORKERS AND THE PUBLIC SHOULD MISS THIS FILM: This reviewer had high hopes for this film. It began on an authentic enough note portraying a dedicated and compassionate social worker who was relentless in her efforts to save a child. However, the film rapidly dissolved into shock value tangents interwoven with gratuitous violence. It no longer was relevant what Emily’s profession was, as she was locked into a formulaic thriller.

 Case 39 reinforces the stereotype that all social workers are child protective service workers, which does not expose the public and the media to our colleagues who work in administration, policy, politics, etc. Additionally, this film also highlights the banal perception of a social worker as a harried and frazzled individual, overwhelmed with too high of a caseload and inundated with stacks of case files.

In the beginning of this film, Dr. Ames suggests to Emily that she represents the number to call for people who don’t have anyone else. As social workers, we know that for our clients who are completely alone, we can make the difference between life and death. This film just isn’t our vehicle to illustrate it.

National Association of Social Workers member Sherry Saturno, LCSW, DCSW, lives in Westchester, New York. She is the 2010 NASW-New York State/Westchester Division Social Worker of the Year.

Want to read more about Case 39 on  Independent film critic Forrest Hartman discussed the film with us in December. Click here to read that feature.

|   Leave A Comment
Tagged as: , , , , ,



  1. it portrays social work in all its stereotypes? good…. because that’s what it is… a bunch of marshmallow hearts that put everyone else ahead of their own needs…. ESPECIALLY if they’re from the lower classes they claim to champion.

    for a profession that sticks its’ fingers into so many pies, it does a horrible job protecting its’ turf. being a slave to drug companies and insurance companies is no way to market yourself as a profession worthwhile.

    and I say this as a social worker. the biggest mistake I ever made was earning this useless degree…. certainly useless for what I wanted in life.

    but the best thing I ever did was fly around thew world and teach in Asia. and the best thing? teach something totally unrelated to this abomination of a profession.

  2. To Rod Munch,

    hmm useless degree? maybe for you it was…sounds like you were ineffective as a social worker. :( I mean thats the impression I am getting!

    you sound upset that there are social workers with marshmellow hearts…as oppose to what, hearts made of stone?! lol

    ‘being a slave to drug companies and insurance companies is no way to market yourself as a profession worthwhile.’

    Your comments across the board are frightening especially if you really believe them in your heart. Social work major was never the field for you buddy…try something else or go live and teach in Asia…You have to be oblivious to the role social workers play in everyday lives…

    especially not know how postively SOCIAL WORKERS have contributed to my OWN success, all through my childhood, to want to become a social worker myself…

    so I look forward to weeding out so-called social workers from the profession such as yourself. It would suck to have to work in the cubicle next to you, you do know that right?! :)

  3. watched this film last night and must say i am appalled by the poor practice of Renee Zellweger in the entire film; very inappropriate both in the way she conducts herself and the way she talks to children in the film…shocked

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.