Check out my book Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide for 50 film discussion guides!
This post from three years ago generates the most amount of search engine traffic for my blog. Yet most people seem to be searching for safe movies they can show to their youth, which isn't the point of the post at all. But watching movies with teenagers as an exercise in practicing discernment can be a great way to learn how to navigate media messages in healthy ways.
There are plenty of movies that are overdone in youth groups (i.e. The Princess Bride, Napoleon Dynamite, The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings films.). It's not that these aren't good, but there are some great films that often get overlooked. Thus, here is a list of films you can show to your youth group in order to generate great spiritual conversations and foster the discernment of truth in media. This is not an exhaustive list, and I'll periodically add films as I see them.
I've grouped these chronologically by rating, including a brief synopsis and a few spiritual themes one could draw from the film. I've also highlighted the films in italics that will require some discerning and serious film-watchers (i.e. these aren't for throwing in the DVD player of the tour bus on that 10-hour road trip or for 90 minutes of mindless entertainment. They will require a discussion afterwards to be truly effective).
Please use caution and wisdom when deciding to show a film to a group of students. Watch the film first, think about your context, invite parents to join your group, and come up with good discussion questions for afterwards.
I'd also highly recommend Jeffrey Overstreet's excellent book, Through a Screen Darkly, to help you grow in making connections between film and spirituality.
Without further ado, here's the list:
Babette's Feast (1987): Two devout sisters living in an isolated village in 19th century Denmark take in a French refugee, Babette, as their new housekeeper. When Babette unexpectedly wins the French lottery, she does something for the village they never expected. (Grace, religion vs. relationship, love, blessings)
WALL-E (2008): Set in the future, a single robot designed to clean up Earth's garbage will help save humanity. (Consumerism, the environment, heaven/earth, love)
Horton Hears a Who! (2008): A kind elephant must keep a microscopic community alive, despite the other animals' lack of belief. (Faithfulness, friendship, the value of life)
Toy Story (1995), Toy Story 2 (1999), Toy Story 3 (2010): A group of toys from a boy's toybox have a variety of adventures. (Community, love, sacrifice, friendship).
Chariots of Fire (1981): Two British runners--one a passionate Christian--compete in the 1924 Olympics. (Using our gifts, worship, faithfulness, friendship)
The Mission (1986): Eighteenth century Spanish Jesuit priests try to protect a remote South American tribe from European invasion. (Redemption, sacrifice, the burden of sin, non-violence and pacifism)
Groundhog Day (1993): A weatherman finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. (Meaning, identity, morality, death, grace)
Contact (1997): An atheist scientist discovers an conclusive radio proof of intelligent alien life. (Faith and science, belief in God)
The Truman Show (1998): An insurance salesman slowly discovers that his entire life is a TV show. (Truth and reality, identity, the power of media)
The Iron Giant (1999): A young boy befriends a giant alien robot which the government seeks to destroy. (Sacrifice, redemption, love, friendship)
Remember the Titans (2000): An African-American football coach must overcome racial tension on his integrated high school team in the early 1970s. (Racism, friendship, grace, teamwork)
The Incredibles (2004): A family of superheroes must band together to defeat an old enemy and save the world. (Family, honesty, using our gifts)
Millions (2004): A seven-year-old British boy finds a large bag of stolen pounds just before the currency is switched to the euro, causing a series of moral dilemmas. (Ethics, heaven)
God Grew Tired of Us (2006): A documentary following four of the Lost Boys of Sudan as they make the transition from being refugees to American citizens. (Suffering, perseverance, culture)
Up (2009): After tying thousands of balloons to his house, elderly Carl finds himself on an adventure in South America with a young boy named Russell, a talking dog named Dug, and a giant bird called Kevin. (Mentorship, love, relationships, legacy)
How To Train Your Dragon (2010): A misfit Viking finds an unlikely friend in an injured dragon, causing two warring cultures to collide. (Father/son relationship, friendship, being judgmental, grace)
Despicable Me (2010): Supervillain Gru finds himself as a father figure after adopting three orphan girls as part of a plot to steal the moon. (Family relationships, grace, legacy)
Tangled (2010): A retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale, a young woman isolated in a tower experiences freedom in the days leading up to her eighteenth birthday. (Adolescence, emerging adulthood, parent/child relationships, safety vs fear)
Megamind (2010): A supervillian finds himself without purpose when his recent diabolical plan actually works. (Identity issues, purpose and meaning in life)
Soul Surfer (2011): After teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton loses her arm in a tragic shark attack, her faith in Christ gives her the strength to extend love to others and get back on her surfboard. (Faith in the midst of tragedy, identity issues, friendship, family)
We Bought A Zoo (2011): A widower and his two children purchase a rundown zoo as their new home. (Courage, living a good story, grief and recovery)
Wreck-It Ralph (2012): A video game villain wants to be a hero, but his quest for a heroic medal puts the entire arcade in jeopardy (true identity, friendship).
Signs (2002): A family led by an ex-priest discover crop circles in their corn fields, leading to a dangerous encounter with an alien life. (Coincidence vs. faith, prayer, guilt)
Saved! (2004): A devout Christian teen at a Christian high school finds herself ostracized when she becomes pregnant. (American Christian culture, the Gospel, the Bible, teen pregnancy, grace, sin)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005): A lawyer investigates the death of a teenage girl involved in an exorcism with a priest. (Faith vs. science, spiritual warfare)
Bella (2006): A cook and a waitress in New York spend a day together learning about grace and redemption. (Guilt, grace, abortion, kindness)
American Teen (2008): A documentary following a group of teens for a school year in an Indiana high school. (Friendship, gossip, integrity and character, sexuality, and just about any issue an American teen faces)
Lord, Save Us From Your Followers (2008): A documentary about the intersection between American culture and the message of Christianity. (Consumerism, being judgmental, the Gospel, Culture Wars)
Doubt (2008): Set in 1960s Bronx, a strict Catholic nun questions the relationship between her school's priest and a 12-year-old boy. (Gossip, character, doubt, moral dilemma, honesty)
Invictus (2009): Nelson Mandela enlists the help of the South African rugby team on a quest for unity in the post-apartheid culture. (Racism and injustice, the power of play, reconciliation)
To Save A Life (2010): After the suicide of a childhood friend, a popular teen must wrestle with questions of faith and guilt. (Friendship, repentance, youth group culture, suicide)
Get Low (2010): A hermit plagued by guilt and regret plans his own funeral party while he is still alive (Guilt, grace, redemption, forgiveness)
Easy A (2010): A clean-cut teen girl relies on the rumors and gossip at her high school to advance her social standing by making others believe she is promiscuous. (Gossip vs. the truth, finding belonging, affinity groups)
Thor (2011): After a powerful hero is cast from his realm for his arrogance, he learns humility as he battles dark forces that threaten both Earth and his home. (Pride and humility, self-sacrifice)
The Help (2011): A young journalist shares the stories of African-American maids living in the deep south of the 1960s. (The effects of racism, standing up against injustice, the power of one's words and language)
Chronicle (2012): Three high school boys gain superpowers, leading both to adventure and dark consequences. (The influence of media and technology, friendship, belonging and popularity)
Blue Like Jazz (2012): A nineteen-year-old attempts to escape his conservative Christian upbringing at the hyper-liberal Reed College in Portland, OR. (Faith and doubt, living a good story, finding belonging)
The Avengers (2012): A team of superheroes must band together to take on a formidable enemy threatening the earth. (The value of team, using unique gifts, self-sacrifice for others)
The Hunger Games (2012): Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match. Based on the popular teen novels. (The effects of media on culture, teen violence)
Bully (2012): A documentary on peer-to-peer bullying in the United States, following the stories of a number of students who suffered from bullies. (Bullying, loving the poor and marginalized, justice issues)
The Big Kahuna (1999): Two veteran salesmen become increasingly frustrated with a young sales protege who keeps interjecting his faith into the sales pitch. (Evangelism, faithfulness, discernment)
Born into Brothels (2004): A documentary following the lives of the children of prostitutes in Calcutta, India. (Poverty, justice, redemption)
The King's Speech (2010): An unorthodox speech therapist forms an unlikely friendship with the King of England as both work together to help the king find his voice. (Friendship, discipleship, finding one's identity)
The Book of Eli (2010): A post-apocalyptic tale where a lone man protects a sacred book that holds the secrets for mankind's salvation. (The power of Scripture, faith, is violence ever justifiable?)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946): An angel helps a compassionate but frustrated businessman by showing him what life would be like if he never existed. (Purpose of life, identity, relationships)
Bicycle Thieves (1948): A man and his son search for a stolen bicycle, which is the man's only means for providing for his family. (Injustice, poverty, faith)
On the Waterfront (1954): An ex-boxer struggles to stand up to the corrupt union bosses who keep the workers--including his brother--under a system of fear. (Family, justice, standing up for what's right, integrity, sin)
12 Angry Men (1957): One dissenting juror in a seemingly-clear trial manages to slowly convince the others that the case is more complex than at first appearance. (Truth, justice, racism, perseverance, standing up for what's right)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Based on the classic novel, lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of rape in the deep south. (Racism, reconciliation, truth, justice, family)
The Son (2002): A carpenter with a secret refuses to take on a new apprentice, but begins to follow the new teen around with a strange obsession. (Grace, forgiveness, guilt, redemption)
The Secret of Kells (2009): A young Irish orphan living in an abbey discovers adventure pouring from the pages of a sacred book. As Viking invaders draw near, young Brendan must brave the dangers of the forest and embrace his calling to complete the book. (The power of Scripture, risk vs. safety, friendship, vocation)
Do you have any movies you would add? Suggest them in the comments!
Please email me here with any questions you might have about a particular film and how you might use it in your youth ministry context!