Monday, June 23, 2014

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 5

(Links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Link to Top Youth Ministry Movies You Can Show To Your Youth Group)

I love movies and I love youth ministry, so when the two interconnect, it's a beautiful thing. Here is part five of my top youth ministry movies: ten more films about adolescence, youth culture, discipleship, and identity formation, listed in alphabetical order. These aren't films for showing to your youth group; these are films for youth workers and parents to explore youth ministry themes. Use discretion and wisdom when deciding to watch any film.

Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates) The Oscar winner of "Best Original Screenplay" in 1980, this affecting sports film is about four friends and the summer after their graduation from high school Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher spend much of their days lazily swimming in a nearby flooded quarry, unsure of their futures and taking out their adolescent frustrations on a local university gang. Dave stands out from the group for his passion for Italian competitive cycling, a passion that frustrates his pragmatic father but inspires his lackadaisical friends. Breaking Away wrestles with the post-high school graduate's vocational anxiety, embodied with the inspirational idealism of Dave and his participation in the Little 500, a local Indiana bike race. The film features a very young Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley in their teen years, and has become an American sports film classic.

Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma) I hesitate to list any scary supernatural film (see my theology of horror movies blog series for more thoughts on a Christian response to the horror genre), but this seminal horror movie based on Stephen King's novel is more than just a frightening film--it's cautionary tale about repressed sexuality, the effects of teen bullying, and an exploration of separatistic fundamentalist religion. When mousy Carrie (Sissy Spacek, in a career-defining role) experiences her first menstrual period in the middle of the gymnasium locker room showers, the subsequent ridicule she experiences at the hands of her peers is humiliating and infuriating. Her psychotic and abusive mother (Piper Laurie) keeps Carrie under her thumb through the authority of a fundamentalist religion akin to Christianity, but missing all aspects of Christ's grace and love. Carrie's realization and exploration of telekentic powers is a parallel to her adolescent experience of puberty--she realizes she has power and the ability to make her own autonomous choices. A young John Travolta and others plot to expand their humiliation of Carrie at the prom, leading to catastrophic results. (Caveat: Carrie is an R-rated horror film, with frightening scenes and nudity/sexuality. It's not an easy film to watch, so please don't consider its inclusion in this list as a blanket recommendation for its content or similar films.)

Frances Ha (2013, Noah Baumbach) Full of an ironic twist of wit and anxiety, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is the best filmic portrayal of the millennial generation's emerging adulthood phenomenon. Frances (co-writer and indie hipster romantic comedy veteran Greta Gerwig) is a feisty misfit, running through urban streets with abandon, spontaneous and full of life, passionate about her hopes and dreams, yet struggling with the whole idea of growing up. Shot in stark black-and-white while set in 2012 New York, Frances Ha pays homage to early Woody Allen comedies (Manhattan, Annie Hall) and the French New Wave films of the 1960s, Godard's Breathless, in particular. Frances Ha is filled with beautiful, cathartic moments which happen in fits and spurts: Frances sitting with the crying college girl in the dorm hallway; Frances' monologue telling the woman at the dinner party about her ideal romantic moment, where two eyes catch across the room and there is a "knowing" of each other that is beyond sexual or emotional longing; Frances running and dancing through the streets of New York with a reckless freedom. It is this last image--Frances running--that sticks in my mind the most. The world around her is a blur as she rushes forward, uncertain about the obstacles or opportunities that lie ahead, yet running at full speed. She is the poster child for the millennial generation's struggles and hopes, rushing with abandon into the future. (My review)

Frozen (2013, Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) Disney is reconstructing its princess romantic identity. Beginning with Tangled, then Pixar's Brave, and now with this past year's Frozen--a wonderfully charming film featuring two princesses, sisters caught up in a magical adventure of danger and love--the concepts of love and femininity are taking some significant and positive shifts. Rather than portray passive princesses overwhelmed with temporal feelings-driven love, true love is embodied by sacrificial action. In Frozen, this definition of love is explicitly stated by Olaf, a magical snowman created by Elsa, who shares simple wisdom with Anna in a key moment. Frozen deconstructs the act of "true love's kiss" and replaces it with a sacrificial act of Anna saving her beloved older sister from impending death. Anna and Elsa are the Disney princesses of a new generation, portraying younger women who find their strength and voice and vocation without sacrificing their femininity. Frozen is a powerful story of teenage autonomy, the value of familial relationships, and the nature of authentic love. (My review)

The LEGO Movie (2014, Phil Lord, Chris Miller) Without spoiling anything, The LEGO Movie wonderfully explores the spiritual nature of creativity and our relationship with the Creator. More than anything, it sends a deeper message of moderation and discernment, where the abundant life is experienced by neither "following the rules" or "just doing what feels right." The LEGO Movie offers a Third Way, a way between polarization and politics, a way that is far more difficult to navigate but offers copious rewards when embraced with wisdom and discernment. Creativity and imagination are part of the created order--and there is order here--where we partner with the Creator in the making of culture. Even the portrayal of God is unique, where Father and Son create together in harmony and unity, while the mysterious Spirit guides and comforts as the world is built anew. The imagination and world-building in The LEGO Movie are par none; the humour is the most laugh-inducing I've had in a year; and the surprises in storyline, character cameos, and direction the film takes are all delightful. There strong parallels between this film and The Truman Show, the Toy Story films, and even The Matrix trilogy. The LEGO Movie, like the best Pixar has ever offered, manages to capture both the imaginative heart of a child and the thoughtful maturity of adulthood, capturing an audience in a holistic manner. As I've reflected upon the movie, I keep recalling more ideas, more delightful memories, more nostalgic moments. I'd be hard-pressed to find much I didn't like about this film. Everything is definitely awesome about The LEGO Movie. I feel like a kid again. (My review)

Mud (2013, Jeff Nichols) In the heart of the American South, two adolescent young men--it just doesn't feel right to call them "boys"--find a fugitive man hiding on an island in the middle of the immense Mississippi river. No, this isn't a Mark Twain story. It does hold on to the timeless character of Twain's tales--an innocent sweetness wrapped up with weighty moral and spiritual issues, all carried along by the great river. Ellis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-olds from small-town Arkansas with a weathered motor boat, are seeking adventure in the form of a boat lodged high in a tree. What they find is Mud, the titular character of Jeff Nichols' latest American filmic masterpiece. Mud is aptly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey with a dangerous Southern charm and rugged idealism. Mud is a man on the run, and the boys decide to help the magnetic absconder. Ellis is one of the best embodiments of a young teen I've seen on film. Portrayed by Tye Sheridan (the youngest brother in Malick's The Tree of Life), Ellis is idealistic, naive, rash, and courageous. He strolls into adult situations with a quiet confidence beyond his fourteen years. He asks out the senior girl without a drop of insecurity or insincerity. He still says "ma'am" and "sir" to his parents, but also talks about girls with Neckbone. Ellis is a romantic, pining for true love, outraged when he cannot seem to find it for himself or in the adult relationships he observes. Questions begin to surface, like who am I? and what is love? and am I capable of giving and receiving love? and where do I fit in this world? Autonomy from his parents, affinity with Mud, and the boldness to make ethical decisions and take action to carry them out all stream from this boy like a slow-moving unstoppable river, driven and shaped by the currents. (My review)

Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford) Probably most famous for winning "Best Picture" over Scorcese's Raging Bull in 1981, Redford's Ordinary People is nonetheless a quiet and meditative exploration of the effects of loss on a normal American family. The accidental death of a beloved eldest son brings incredible turmoil to the Jarrett family, particularly with Conrad, the younger brother and survivor of the accident that cost his brother's life. After a suicide attempt and rehab in a psychiatric hospital, teenage Conrad ends up in regular meetings with a counselor, Dr. Berger, a compassionate and blunt man who can handle Conrad's painful feelings of loss and brokenness. The mother, Beth, also can't handle the brokenness in her heart, and her bitter refusal to forgive or show love for others comes out in painful and explosive ways. Though she cannot admit it, she holds Conrad responsible for the death, and the pain seeps out of her like liquid through fissures in a cracked dish. I recall watching Ordinary People in a high school religion class and being struck by the portrayal of a distraught and dysfunctional family that looked perfectly ordinary on the surface. Now as an adult, I see the underlying pain of families often in my experience as a pastor, the dysfunction both consistent and unique for each family. Tolstoy said it well: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Cretton) Filmmaker Destin Cretton has crafted a world that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming--it's certainly emotionally moving, and I found myself wiping my eyes numerous times. Short Term 12 is one of the most affecting and honest portrayal of youth work I've seen on film, sitting alongside The Kid with a Bike and About a Boy. While the youth workers in Short Term 12 are facility employees and therapists, there are strong parallels to Christian youth ministry, both in the church and the community. (I wish there were more Christian films that expressed the pathos and artistry and spirituality of Short Term 12. We need more of those films.) The young people of the facility are wounded by abandonment and abuse, frightened and cautious about opening up their souls to the adults around them. They reveal their pain through their art. A rap song from a troubled young man named Marcus is devastating as he reveals his past through the profane and affecting lyrics. Jayden shows Grace a children's story she wrote and illustrated in her notebook, a tale about an octopus being slowly eaten by a deceitful shark. Mason and Grace just listen and weep and empathize. It's a typical day in the life of a youth worker. This may, in fact, be the best contemporary film portraying youth ministry in a post-modern, post-Christian world. (My review)

The Way, Way Back (2013, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) The Way, Way Back falls in line with typical summer movie themes--awkward teens, miserable experience in a beautiful vacation spot, hilarious side characters, etc.--without slipping into cliches or sentimentality. The opening scene features 14-year-old Duncan (perfectly portrayed by young actor, Liam James) sitting in the back of a Buick. A brief conversation with his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), is incredibly demeaning--when asked what he'd rate Duncan on a scale of 1 to 10, Trent gives him a 3. Duncan's awkward eyes and iPod earbuds designed to block out the world reminded me of so many other young teens with the same internal question--am I really just a 3? Do I really matter? Is life always going to be this difficult? After discovering a nearby water park and suddenly becoming a member of the staff, Duncan begins to live in two different worlds. In the world of Trent and the vacation home, he is aloof, ignored, and viewed as an annoyance to be tolerated. In the world of the water park, he has authority, autonomy, responsibility, and community. With Trent and his friends, Duncan is inferior and boring. With Owen,  (the hilarious water park owner portrayed by Sam Rockwell) and the water park employees, Duncan is a beloved peer. With Trent, Duncan is a 3. With Owen, Duncan is a 10. It's not that Duncan is being hypocritical by living two different lives; he's embarking on the adolescent journey of autonomy, finding his own sense of self in the world, trying on a variety of identities to see which one truly fits best. And water park Duncan is winning the identity contest, thanks to Owen's invitation into his world. (My review)

Waiting for 'Superman' (2010, Davis Guggenheim) In the documentary Waiting for 'Superman,' filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) tackles the broad subject of public education by looking at five individual children whose futures will be largely defined by the schools they attend. If they go down one path--specialized charter schools funded by public finances--they are nearly guaranteed the chance to go to college. If they head down another--public schools determined by their zip code--they enter a system seemingly designed to guarantee their failure in high school. Guggenheim's big question--what is wrong with public education and how do we fix it?--is one with simple-yet-complex solutions. There are a variety of factors in play here, such as the educational system, the policies, and the educators' priorities and values about what is truly important. These factors raise important questions for the American church. Whose preferences are more important, the older or younger generation? How can the older lovingly guide the younger? Is there such thing as a 'bad' youth pastor--or at least poor youth ministry practices--that could be hindering the spiritual growth of students?  (My review)

What youth ministry films would you add? Share in the comments!

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