Update: More youth ministry movies in part two.
Update: youth ministry movies you can show to your youth group
Update: youth ministry movies you can show to your youth group
Adolescents + movies = great insights for youth ministry. From junior high to college years, film can communicate some of the awkwardness, the idealism, the vitality, the pressures, and the coming-of-age during the adolescent years. These films can communicate some important truths for youth workers in our culture.
The Breakfast Club (1985) This film systematically placed every teenager of the 80s into one of five categories: brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals. The simplicity of putting teens into categories like this has worn off over the years--now a teen can be an eclectic combination of all five, and then some. But this movie still has some insight into the pain and insecurities every teen faces, no matter how "together" they look on the outside. The film addresses issues like family problems, outside pressure to succeed, insecurity about the future, and high school friendships. One of my favorite characters is the janitor, a one-time high school celebrity who now mops the floors of the building where he was formerly king. This film is classic 80s, with silly dance sequences and lots of running from teachers with pumping music for a soundtrack. "You mess with the bull, you get the horns!"
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) James Dean is an icon of the 1950s. He personified rebellion and teen angst perfectly in this film about a troubled teen trying to find himself in a new town. The film follows Dean through an exaggerated day filled with knife fights, drag races, and 24-hour romances. The conflict between Dean and his parents in the film is strikingly realistic. Natalie Wood is also great as a girl who falls for the tough, emotive guy while still trying to fit in with everyone else. While this film was made back in the 50s, it has some important truths about adolescence in American culture that still apply today.
Dead Poet's Society (1989) This film is about teen boys coming of age and dealing with courage, identity, and significance. Nominated for Best Picture, "Poets" has some classic quotes, especially "Carpe Diem: Seize the day" and "Oh captain, my captain." This film inspires, but also deals with some tough teen issues, like conformism and suicide. While this film has some inspiring and thoughtful moments, it is probably more artistically-pleasing than insightful for ministry.
Elephant (2003) This independent film by Gus Van Sant was shot in Portland, Oregon at Whitaker Middle School. Elephant is the most realistic and shocking of all these teen films. Almost every student in the film is not a professional actor, and most use their real names. The camera follows different students through a typical high school day as they walk between classes, chat at the lunch table, or throw a football around. It's almost like a documentary without the interviews. The film has a shocking and disturbing conclusion that still haunts my thoughts. Aethestically, the film is beautifully shot and extremely true-to-life. This film gives insight to the darker side of high school--the gossip, the brokenness, the bottled up pain. The title comes from the phrase "the elephant in the room," the large tensions in youth culture that we can't seem to discuss openly.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) I just saw this for the first time a few months ago. The screenplay for the film is based on Cameron Crowe's experiences posing as a student at a high school in California (even before Drew Barrymore did it). The film focuses a lot on the awkwardness of sexuality, including some pretty racy-but-awkwardly-realistic scenes. Definitely an 80s movie, but has some true-to-life insight about teens dealing with some tough issues (like broken relationships and unwanted pregnancy).
Thirteen (2003) This film was co-written by and stars thirteen-year-old Nikki Reed. While Elephant deals with teen violence in a shockingly realistic manner, Thirteen deals with almost every teen issue in the context of one junior high girl's story. This film tackles divorce, popularity, consumerism, shop lifting, drugs, sex, alcohol, eating disorders, and almost everything in between. The downward spiral of the main character is tragic, to say the least. What makes this film so interesting to me is that it was co-written by a junior high girl and is semi-autobiographical. I would recommend coupling this film with the book Hurt by Chap Clark, as both deal with the hurts and pains of today's American teenager.
Garden State (2004) I like Zach Braff. I also like this film, in which Zach Braff wrote, directed, and starred. This might be one of the best films I've seen about the sense of loss and confusion felt by many during the post-high-school years. While I don't agree with some of the conclusions communicated in the film, there is definitely insight into the world of the American twenty-something who is still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult. It is also very creative and has one of the best soundtracks ever.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) Ok, this really doesn't have too much insight into today's youth. I just really like this film. It's fun. "Bueller.......Bueller........Bueller......."
Mean Girls (2004) While I wouldn't normally recommend anything to do with Lindsay Lohan, and while this film also has a lot of girliness in it, this film seems to accurately portray some of the unhealthy competitive dynamics that can happen between girls (and women in general). I've talked with a few girls and women about this film, and most have said that it gives an exaggerated-but-true account of girls being mean. (Tangent: why is it that while men are stereotyped as uber-competitive, women can be equally--if not more--competitive in social arenas? A dangerous question...) I learned a lot about adolescent social dynamics by comparing this film to what I would see in real life scenarios. Maybe not the greatest film in the world, but has some important insights about adolescent girls.
Jesus Camp (2006) This documentary follows the story of three children from Christian families in Missouri, focusing also on a pastor and her charismatic summer camp, "Kids on Fire." The film shows Christians at their weirdest, with the almost-idolizing of President Bush, very young children writhing on the floor in "spirit-filled" moments, and lots of war/battle rhetoric. The unhealthy marriage of politics and Christianity is also clearly evident in this portrait of the evangelical subculture. There are also some interesting scenes with Ted Haggard, the main character in a recent pastoral sex scandal. I wonder if this is what comes to mind when the emerging non-Christian generation hears the word "Christian." This film shows us how we can be informed of how our culture views us, as well as the dangers of some forms of religious education. In youth ministry, are we simply indoctrinating our students and teaching them to conform to our culture of American Christianity? Or are we calling them to be disciples of Jesus who use wisdom and prayer to navigate through life?
It takes prayerful wisdom and discernment to decide what aspects of films are insightful, while the other parts are just entertainment. It also takes wisdom to choose whether to watch a film or not, and I would strongly encourage you to check ratings and your conscience before watching some of these films. I don't recommend these movies for students, but rather for those in youth ministry looking for another perspective on the people they love and serve.
I'm sure I'm missing some films that give insight into the lives of adolescents. What could you add to the list?