The most visited post on The Mayward Blog is this one about my top youth ministry movies. It's caused a bit of controversy, mostly because the suggested films are for youth workers desiring to understand youth culture, not for showing to your youth group on a movie night. (If you want a list of safe but enjoyable movies for showing to your youth group, pick any Pixar film and you're good to go!)
There are plenty of other films that offer great insights into youth culture and give wonderful examples of discipleship and incarnational ministry. Here are my top youth ministry movies, part two.
American Teen (2008): This documentary follows the lives of six midwest teenagers as they navigate the ups and downs of their senior year of high school. While I'm sure some of the teens' actions are influenced by the presence of cameras, there remains a sense of authenticity with this group. What's remarkable is the enormous amount of pressure these students are under. Parents, teachers, coaches, peers, and society itself places a large burden of expectations, some of which are contradictory. It was especially disturbing to see how some of the teens' parents interacted with them; these parents are distant, naive, and doing their best to live vicariously through their children. In spite of it all, this is a fascinating look at high school students in Indiana.
Gran Torino (2008) and Up (2009): An grumpy old widower and a naive Asian boy find friendship through encounters that will change both of their lives forever. The older man finds someone he can pour into--some might call it disciple--and becomes an advocate for the boy while also learning about himself. The boy learns from the wisdom of his elder and grows in his courage and confidence. Both films are great examples of the power of intergenerational discipleship that include the breaking down of racial barriers. It'd be great to gather groups of youth ministers from different races and cultures to talk about ministry in each context.
Good Will Hunting (1997): One of my favorite films, an older man becomes the advocate for a troubled but potential-filled youth growing up in a tough Boston neighborhood. Andrew Root dives deep into the power of incarnational relationships in his incredible book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and uses Good Will Hunting as a key example. The psychologist shares his pain with Will, yet sets boundaries that still defines him as "other." They both maintain unique identities, but their lives become intertwined as they learn and grow from one another. I've referred back to this film countless times when reminding others--and myself--of the incredible potential that can lie dormant within some of the most troubled teens.
Saved! (2004): A satire about American Christianity, Saved! takes plenty of potshots at the shallow and judgmental aspects of western Christian culture. When a girl at a Christian high school becomes pregnant trying to "de-gay" her boyfriend, she finds herself ostracized and ridiculed. Sadly, the caricatures aren't too far from the truth at times, though the film goes too far and condones sinful behavior as acceptable. If anything, the film reveals the need for a balance of grace and truth and how a Christian engages culture instead of creates a pseudo-reality in a Christian bubble.
The Lion King (1994): Watch this Disney animated film through a lens of "adolescent development" and you'll find yourself amazed at the amount of genuine insight it contains. Simba journeys from innocent cub to exiled adolescent to courageously idealistic young adult. It's especially insightful that Simba's identity is wrapped up in who his father says he is; he's not a reject, he's a king. I view Rafiki the baboon as a mentor of sorts, an elder who steps into the life of the young lion at pivotal moments to remind him of his past and guide him into the future. Maybe Rafiki is what youth ministry is all about--entering into the lives of young people to offer direction and guidance without condemnation or eliciting resentment.
Half Nelson (2006): A cocaine-addicted junior high teacher and a troubled-yet-gifted teen girl form an unlikely bond when she happens upon him and his drug stash. While the film is quite dark and slow-paced, the gritty struggles that both characters go through are authentic and sadly realistic. The teacher is struggling to inspire his inner city students by using some unorthodox curriculum on dialectics. The girl has an older brother in jail, a mom that works too much to give her any attention, and a subtle draw into the drug-dealing lifestyle. There are two mentors in the film--the teacher and a drug dealer. The teacher is doing drugs while trying to help the girl do the right thing with her life. The drug dealer says all the right things and looks after the girl, but is motivated by getting her to sell his merchandise. While the film shows both characters going into a downward spiral, there is a beautifully redemptive conclusion. (Caution: the film contains drug use, language, and a scene of sensuality).
The Class (2009) This Cannes winner is about a diverse inner-city junior high class in France. Filmed in near-documentary realism, the film employs real students to give an incredibly authentic feel to the entire story. The prevalent theme in the film is race relations, with students from diverse cultures all coming into the melting pot of the classroom. It's fascinating to watch the teacher navigate the difficult situations the students put him in; sometimes he handles it well, and sometimes he falls flat on his face. This isn't a film about the idealistically perfect teacher. This guy has flaws, struggles, stress, and frustrations. Yet he also genuinely cares about their futures and desires for them to become thoughtful and successful adults. Highly recommended.
The 400 Blows (1959): Francois Truffaut's classic film about a troubled youth coming of age in urban Paris is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. Living with parents who are focused more on their marital troubles than their son, young Antoine also must deal with peer pressure, judgmental teachers, and his own pent up frustration with the world. This perfectly captures the confusing period of adolescence as the adults treat Antoine both like a big kid and a little adult. Slow-paced and leading up to a powerful ending, The 400 Blows reveals that some aspects of adolescence haven't changed much since the 1950s.
Let The Right One In (2008): This foreign vampire film is also a social commentary on the lack of adult involvement in young teens' lives. A bullied 12-year-old is befriended by a new girl living in his apartment building. Feeling like he can't defend himself, he retreats to his own fantasy world. Both outcasts from society, the boy and girl learn to protect one another and navigate the frightening world around them without the care of adults. Reading the book Hurt by Chap Clark in conjunction with this film could draw out some interesting and new insights about youth culture. (Caution: this is also a vampire horror film, so there's some blood-sucking violence)
As with any film, use caution and discernment before viewing any of the films above.