Monday, June 4, 2012

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 3

I love movies. I also love youth ministry. So if you Google "youth ministry movies" or "movies for youth group," you'll likely find The Mayward Blog. One of the most popular posts I've written is My Top Youth Ministry movies, a list of films intended for youth workers' viewing. That post was followed up by part two, as well as an ever-expanding list of movies you can show at your youth group

It's been awhile since that last youth ministry movies post. Movies can offer incredible insight into the themes of youth culture, the adolescent journey, faith development, and incarnational discipleship. I humbly offer part three of my youth ministry movies.

(Note: these are intended for youth workers, NOT for showing at your youth group. If you are looking for films to show for youth group, click here.)

About a Boy (2002): A cynical and deeply narcissistic man, Will, finds himself the unlikely mentor of a young misfit, Marcus, after the boy's mother attempts to commit suicide. What makes this film unique is both its charming tone and unlikely relationship between the two lead characters. Will is probably the worst possible mentor one could ask for--he's selfish, shallow, lazy, and judgmental. Yet the relationship the two characters form causes a transformation that can only happen through the mysterious power of discipleship. A particularly insightful scene is a brief conversation Will has with Marcus about the aftermath of the suicide attempt:
W: So... Hows it going at home then? 
M: Me and my mum? She's alright thanks.  
W: I mean... Y'know.  
M: Yeah I know. Nah, nothing like that.  
W: It still bother you then?  
M: Does it bother me...  
M: [Voice over] Every single day. That's why I come here instead of going home.  
M: Yeah. When I think about it.  
W: ...F**king hell.  
M: [Voice over] I didn't know why he swore like that, but it made me feel better. It made me feel like it wasn't being pathetic to get so scared.
This is a discipleship conversation, one where Will is finally beginning to empathize with another person outside of himself. Will's questions aren't particularly deep, but they show a care and concern for Marcus. His brief profanity actually proves to be the most honest and comforting thing he could share with Marcus in that moment, because honestly, what do you say? This authenticity, this willingness to be overwhelmed with Marcus, proves to be the a blessing Will never expected. There are plenty of other fantastic mentoring moments as Will becomes an advocate for Marcus.

Bully (2012): This documentary follows a number of families whose children have experienced bullying, particularly at their school. A few of these families have children who committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied. Void of hope that the systems of justice and protection would help them, they took their own lives. They didn't seem to think anyone noticed or understood. Their indictment is quite fair. Most of the adults in Bully appear clueless, helpless, and reveal a deep lack of understanding or engagement with the teens. Young people are essentially left to fend for themselves while teachers, principals, bus drivers, law enforcement, and parents all passively wonder what is going on. Many adults get frustrated with the victims--"why didn't you just tell someone?" they demand. They did, numerous times. No one truly listened. When no one ever listens, after a while, the message is clear: I must navigate this world on my own. If parents and adults would choose to fully listen, to understand and engage with young people, coming alongside them and journeying with them through life, perhaps these systems of violence would dissipate.

Chronicle (2012): A teen-driven "lost footage" super hero film, Chronicle is the Carrie for the YouTube generation. Filmmakers Josh Trank and Max Landis create some authentic teenage moments between three high school guys who make a discovery that leads to having telekinetic powers. The interactions between the teen guys feel genuine, and I think the entire film benefits from having a young cast and filmmakers; both Trank and Landis are 26-years-old, and the three lead actors give phenomenal performances, particularly Dane DeHaan as Andrew, the brooding main character whose power goes to his head. Chronicle uses the found footage genre in a new way, offering a bit of a commentary on the YouTube generation's fascination with being on camera. From online confessions to the desire to go viral, we love putting ourselves out there on the Internet, hoping we get "liked." One female character in Chronicle has her own video camera for her personal blog. We see snippets of her footage throughout Chronicle, giving a creative second perspective on Andrew's viewpoint, as well as furthering the point that cameras are everywhere. As part of the climactic final scene--an impressive action sequence for a small indie film--Andrew mentally pulls dozens of camera phones out of bystanders' hands, creating a cluster of cameras that orbit him, documenting his every move. Like Andrew admits, our obsession with screens creates a barrier between us and the people in our lives. Is it possible to be fully present and fully authentic when I am documenting my every move?

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009): Auteur Wes Anderson's stop-animated film based loosely on the Roald Dahl book of the same name is a quirky children's film about a charismatic fox, his temptation towards thievery, and how he must help his family and community survive three angry farmers' retaliation.  This is a children's film that also appeals to adults, a film that captures both a child's innocent imagination and an adult's understanding of the darker side of life. This may be a wonderful film for parents and children to view together, then discuss the themes, such as family, identity, and even the body of Christ. In a wonderfully inspiring scene, Fox addresses all of the distraught animals by naming their scientific Latin names and pointing out their unique strengths and gifts. The tongue-in-cheek humor doesn't hide the deeper truths--that we are all designed to be in community and use our gifts to build up the Body. Quirky story, imaginative humor, artistic sense of detail, and deeper truths about community; that all sounds pretty fantastic to me.

The Hunger Games (2012): The Hunger Games is set in a future dystopian world where the remnants of America have been gathered into the nation of Panem. Divided into twelve outlying districts and controlled by the luxurious Capitol, a yearly event known as the Hunger Games unites the nation in a grim ritual--the Capitol selects a boy and a girl from each district to fight to the death on a live broadcast. The Hunger Games serves as an overt parallel to our own teen culture. We live in a society where young people are paradoxically elevated in status and stature, while also being systemically manipulated and/or abandoned by the world of adults. Katniss, the heroine of the story, is forced to participate in an adult-controlled game, put on display as a sort of celebrity. The people of the Capitol don't love her; they love the version of her portrayed on a screen, made up by fashion designers and TV producers. The adults in Katniss's world are there to use her or abuse her, with a few exceptions--Haymitch and Cinna both seemed to genuinely care about their tributes, with an affection and advocacy that makes this youth pastor smile. A strong parallel is to The Truman Show, where reality TV is taken to such an extreme as to appear manipulative and ridiculous. Yet in a world where shows like The Bachelor and Jersey Shore draw millions of viewers, perhaps we're closer to The Hunger Games than we'd like to admit. We are a culture in love with our screens.

Mean Creek (2004): Like a teenage version of Deliverance, this film about bullying centers around a canoe trip gone horribly wrong. After Sam is constantly bullied by the misunderstood and lonely George, he and his friends coax George into joining them on a boat ride with the intention to teach him a lesson. The depth of quality in the child actors in the film is phenomenal. The film touches on how young teens can lash out when misunderstood and the importance of teaching teens about social and moral boundaries. The young people take their prank too far without accountability, allowing their actions to spiral out of control. This is a wonderful companion film to Bully, offering insights into the bully's perspective and story that Bully doesn't explore.

Stand By Me (1986): Based on a Stephen King story, four young friends embark on a journey in small town Oregon, looking for the reported body of a missing teenager that is supposedly in the nearby woods. This is one of those 1980s films that have a bit of whimsy and nostalgia attached to them, much like The Goonies or The Breakfast Club. The journey through the Oregon countryside is a literal journey towards the loss of innocence for these 12-year-old boys. Every step is a movement towards adulthood, where the dark weightiness of the world awaits them. Particularly noteworthy is the dialogue, especially when the boys are talking about random stuff (sports, TV, the nature of Disney characters, etc.). It feels like the same conversation could happen in a van on a junior high camping trip. The rebellious Chris (River Phoenix) declares that, "kids lose everything unless there's someone there to look out for them." Youth ministry takes up the call to look out for these young people, to walk alongside them as they journey into adulthood.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009): There is a whimsical beauty to one's childhood imagination. It is a place to experience joy, hope, and a deep sense of wonder. It is also a fantasy world to escape when one feels pain or suffering; it is a safe haven, a sanctuary, the fort created in the bedroom with pillows and quilts in order to escape from the wild world. This was the simple beauty of Maurice Sendak's children's book of ten sentences. A rambunctious boy named Max is sent to bed without supper. What follows could only be described in lustrous and striking pictures; words simply don't do a child's imagination justice. Director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers have managed to take Sendak's classic and bring it to life. From the wild rumpus to building forts to throwing dirt clods, there isn't much of a story to speak of. There seems to be a lack of attention span to Max and the wild things; their emotions jump from joy to sadness in a matter of moments. I believe this is purposeful; most child-made activities don't consist of much more than simple actions repeated over and over, and any parent can attest that children will quickly go from laughter to crying in the blink of an eye. While not necessarily focused on teenagers, the story of Max and his emotional struggles are a beautiful picture of the imagination and hope of young people.

Winter's Bone (2010): Part noir, part Western, part family drama, Winter's Bone was a film I never would have bothered with had not the critics brought it to my attention. Jennifer Lawrence's performance holds this entire film together as she searches for the whereabouts of her drug-making father. Her portrayal of Ree has plenty of parallels with Katniss of The Hunger Games; both a strong-willed young women who have been set with the responsibility of taking care of their families due to a dead father and an emotionally-broken mother. Set in the murky blue-grey of the backwoods Ozarks, Winter's Bone is an American morality tale set in a culture I have no experience with. This is a world that is completely foreign to the majority of the world, and Granik's film reveals that the American dream is playing itself out in the dark corners of our country. Ree must grow up quickly due to the desperate circumstances, revealing the underlying potential that all young people have as potential adults.

Young Adult (2011): Young Adult is a darkly satirical view on people with static maturity. (The film's tagline: everyone grows old. Not everyone grows up.) Mavis, a writer of young adult novels, is both the protagonist and antagonist of this tale. She is her own destruction as she continues to pursue Buddy, her high school sweetheart, despite all evidence that he is not interested in her advances. It's not a true mid-life crisis, but a prolonging of the past that stretches continually into the present. This is the ultimate in extended adolescence. Mavis does have some adult characteristics--she has been married, she maintains a job, and is financially independent of her parents. Her adolescence has less to do with practicalities and more with identity; her very self is trapped in the days of high school. Mavis has an incredible lack of self-awareness and empathy, a devastating combination that isolates her in an illusion of reality. Herein lies the difficult-yet-brilliant aspect to Mavis's story: she doesn't change. There are no climactic moments of repentance or redemption. Her story has no arc, only a stagnant flatline with a few blips here and there revealing signs of life. Watching the film, it felt deeply dissatisfying, and even painful, to see Mavis continue to embrace her illusions. It allows us to empathize with a self-destructive character, watching her life flatline and hoping for a renewed breath of life to fill her lungs. What could have changed Mavis's trajectory in life? Perhaps a loving adult coming alongside her when she was young, patiently guiding her and willing to call her out on her ruinous habits. When the credits rolled, I did not like Mavis. She was rude and shallow and stubborn and frustrating. Yet more than these characteristics, she was lost. Jesus loved the lost, choosing to leave the ninety-nine in order to find the one. Without guidance and direction and grace from a good Shepherd and a compassionate community, I am Mavis.

Use caution and discernment when choosing to view any of the above films.

Do you have a suggestion for a future youth ministry movies post? Leave a comment, or email me here!


  1. Waiting for Superman and the Lottery is good for youth workers trying to understand why kids won't read.

  2. Wow. You have great taste in movies. You've pretty much created the same list I would've made!

  3. These are great selection of movies. I haven't seen Hunger Games and Young Adult yet but I'm looking forward to watch them.

  4. Hunger Games on the list! Wow! Who would have thought it would be fit for the youth ministry? Hmm. Thanks for sharing those movies. I'd take note of them and preferably use them one day. :)))

    ♥ Ayin