With the Oscars airing earlier this week, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about film. . . its power, its role in our culture, and the way it has influenced my life. As a youth culture watcher, I’ve developed a special place in my heart for movies. French film director Jean-Luc Godard once said that “a film is the world in an hour and a half.”

Like all cultural artifacts, films serve us as maps and mirrors. As maps, they direct our thinking and doing. As mirrors, they tells us what we value in terms of our thinking and doing. In his book Visions of Vocation, Steve Garber quotes William Barrett from Barrett’s book, Irrational Man. Barrett writes, “Every age projects its own image of man into its art. . . . Whenever a civilization has live in terms of a certain image of man, we can see this image in its art.”

Garber also reflects on the words of Donald Drew, a Christian who thought deeply about film.  Garber says of Drew, “Taking off from Descartes’s ‘I think, therefore I am,’ Drew maintained that films are cinematic images of the human condition, windows into diverse understandings of what it is that makes us human. I play, therefore I am. I work, therefore I am. I copulate, therefore I am. With unusual insight he suggested that movies, like every art form, both reflect and promote certain visions fo the way life is and ought to be. They can never be neutral. Someone is always communicating something – and not always because its creator is intentionally making a statement, but more so because the dynamic of reflect and promote is implicit in the act of creation itself.”

For those of us who need to keep developing our knowledge of the culture, world, and spirit of kids, movies offer a great window into that culture, world, and spirit. Over the years, there are five films that have come to sit at the top of my list in terms of films that give clear visions of contemporary images of youth. Here’s what sits at the top of my list. . .

1. The Breakfast Club – It’s been almost 30 years since this John Hughes classic hit theaters and it still captures the hopes, dreams, angst, ups, downs, and dynamics of adolescence in captivating ways. I’ve watched it so many times that cuing it up is like walking through the door to visit a group of friends. No other film has done a better job deepening my sensitivity to kids who face difficult issues. Sure, it’s a film filled with stereotypes. My favorite scene? When Judd Nelson’s John Bender pours his heart out about his family. Wow. I always walk away from this one with a better sense of why I’m called to youth ministry.

2. Little Miss Sunshine – How can you not like a film starring a little Abigail Breslin?!? This one takes us deep into the brokenness of the human condition, while showing us that even in the midst of our brokenness, there can still be hope. I love the social commentary on our cultural obsession with body image, along with the snarky peek into the creepy world of child beauty pageants. Teenager Dwayne deserves our attention in this one. Pay special attention when Dwayne breaks his vow of silence and spills his heart. We all know kids who feel like this. Very moving!

3. Good Will Hunting – Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, this movie is at one level about growing up in Boston’s South End. It captures the “Southie” culture with great accuracy (yep, lots of profanity). But it’s also about Will Hunting’s discovery of his gifts and emotions. This film’s a favorite because it helped me begin to understand the horrible legacy left by abuse. Most gut-wrenching scene? When Robin Williams’ character Sean Maguire gets Damon’s Will Hunting locked in that freedom-giving embrace. Pass the Kleenex, please.

4. Thirteen – This film is especially powerful as it was co-written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed. Hardwicke entered into Reed’s life as a mentor as the thirteen-year-old Reed struggled to navigate her transition into adolescence. The two wrote the film based on those real-life experiences. It’s not pretty. This film takes us into a world none of us ever want to see, but must see. All the pressures, social problems, and family issues of today’s teenage world are explored. Be forewarned. . . there is one scene of female nudity in this film. But for those who understand film, it’s not nudity of the gratuitous type. This film deepened my compassion for lost and hurting kids.

5. American Teen – Filmed in Warsaw, Indiana, this documentary follows several students through their last year of high school. Released in 2008, this modern-day real-life Breakfast Club offers a compelling peek into the social and family interactions of today’s teens. Sure, the kids knew the cameras were rolling, but there’s enough here to open your eyes to things like family pressure, academic pressure, sexting, the party culture, the role of sports in teen life, and more. Because I tend to root for the underdog, I loved getting to know self-proclaimed nerd Jake Tusing, and the free-spirited Hannah Bailey. This is a film worth watching with parents and your youth ministry team.

That’s my list. What  films are on your list?

3 thoughts on “The Oscars, Youth Culture, and Film. . . .

  1. I cannot recommend enough that you watch “Taare Zameen Par”, or in English “Like Stars On Earth.” It’s a Bollywood film about a troubled boy with a learning disability (unknown to his family) and his downward spiral as he faces pressure from school, family, and friends to “try harder” and “do better.” He is seemingly a lost cause until one teacher comes into his life and tries a different approach – compassion, love, and understanding. As a summer camp director (Black Rock Retreat), I show it to my summer staff just about every year and it makes a huge impact on them because it’s a great reminder that poor behavior is always a symptom of a greater root cause, and it’s our job as youth workers to dig deep and look at the deeper issues of the heart. This film is powerful – it both heartbreaking and redemptive. Of course, it’s little known because it’s Bollywood and we tend to be movie snobs in America, but it is so good that Disney bought the rights to distribute it!

    Check out the reviews:

  2. I would recommend The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is a current movie, telling the story of early 90s high schoolers, but the characters are timeless. It is very well done and digs painfully deep into the hurt teens may be facing. Just as a disclaimer, there are several sexual issues covered in the movie.

  3. I would recommend The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is a current movie, telling the story of early 90s high schoolers, but the characters are timeless. It is very well done and digs painfully deep into the hurt teens may be facing. Just as a disclaimer, there are several sexual issues covered in the movie.

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