Monday, April 27, 2015

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 6

(Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5. 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 six 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, and let me know what you think about the films in the comments.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson). A parable of grace and depravity through the eyes of a donkey. The film follows the donkey Balthazar as he is passed between owners, sometimes receiving love and compassion, but often experiencing abuse and violence. The human parallel to his experience is found in Marie, the young woman who is Balthazar's single gracious caretaker, though she often rejects him for other frivolities. Marie grows from a girl to a teenager, and engages in activities teens have always done--the rejection of parental authority, a draw into rebellious community, and a sexual awakening. Au Hasard Balthazar is a deeply frustrating film to watch, partly due to the violence inflicted upon the donkey, and partly because of the reasoning behind the violence. As in, there is none--much of the abuse appears haphazard, impulsive, and random. The titular phrase "au hasard" means "by chance" or "at random." Bresson offers us a picture of how the world often feels--a harsh place where people's choices often make little sense, goodness is rarely rewarded or noticed, and death awaits us all. Through all the randomness, Balthazar remains stoic and present, fully aware of the painful circumstances yet seemingly unable to stop them. One character calls him a saint. I'd consider him more of a martyr, a silent witness of human beauty and depravity.

Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater). Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one's eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one's whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger's family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person's life in the images. This can be a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is frequently both. Richard Linklater's 12-year experiment in storytelling is a remarkable success, though Mason might be considered an overly passive and uninteresting character. By the third act, I was beginning to become fidgety from the tedium, hoping for a moment of catharsis that never fully came. I suppose real life is like that. Our personal narratives are a series of events, some more influential and transformative than others, yet simply a series of interconnected moments linked in time.

Class Enemy (2014, Rok Bicek). As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale set in a high school classroom which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety. It's a Slovenian film about a rigid substitute teacher and the escalating rebellion of his high school class in the wake of a classmate's suicide. What makes Class Enemy so fascinating and why it works so well is its ability to navigate the realms of the morally grey with apparent ease. Even the color palette is stark, using natural grey lighting from Slovenia to give a pale and monotone look to the film. Neither the teacher, the class, the parents, or the deceased student are the clear antagonist or protagonist--each elicits both sympathy and denouncement from the audience. Akin to 12 Angry Men, the film can feel taut and claustrophobic, a volatile film about ethics and groupthink.

Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly). A bizarre sci-fi film about time travel, hypnosis, cellar doors, and a large creepy bunny named Frank, Donnie Darko has amassed a cult following due to its ambitious narrative and breakout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. A brooding and lonely teenager, Donnie (Gyllenhaal) attempts to navigate the tragedies of his life by following the leadings of his invisible friend, Frank, a man in a bunny costume from another time/dimension. Darko offered a dark but sympathetic look at the underground world of teenage depression, anxiety, existential longing, and brokenness.

Ida (2014, Pawel Pawilkowski)The first thing you'll notice about Ida is the beauty. Shot in gorgeous black and white and structured in 4:3, every moment is out of a painting, picturesque and affecting. The story follows an innocent young nun, Anna, on the verge of taking her vows. She goes on a quest with her secular aunt, Wanda, to discover the secrets of her past and the dark history of both her origins and the Polish nation. A coming-of-age journey with a young woman wrestling with identity, spirituality, and her own ontology. Every person has a name, every person has a story, and every person undergoes a crisis of faith in their own way.

It Follows (2015, David Robert Mitchell). A creepy and original horror film, the "it" of It Follows is, at once, the consequences from our sexual actions, the lingering wounds of our past, and the impending certainty of death.  What I appreciate about It Follows and filmmaker David Robert Mitchell's previous film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, is its portrayal of teenagers and youth culture in America. The adults and authorities don't seem to be fully present in the film, and that's certainly intentional. I think Mitchell's films capture the systemic abandonment of youth by adults in our culture. Much like the abandoned and tottering Detroit homes, the era of the 1950s suburban nuclear family is crumbling and antiquated.

The Kid (1921, Charlie Chaplin). A silent masterpiece, Charlie Chaplin's classic opens with this title card: "A comedy with a smile--and perhaps a tear." A distraught woman abandons her newborn baby in a car, which ends up being stolen. The thieves discard the baby in the garbage, only to be discovered by a bumbling and lovable Tramp (Chaplin). The Tramp takes in the child and raises him as his own son. Their relationship is put in danger when officers and the mother attempt to take back the Kid. While the Kid is no more than a boy in the film, this is still a youth ministry film in my mind. When both individuals (the mother) and the system have abandoned the child, the kindness of the Tramp models the sort of compassion and care we can embody for teens.

The Spectacular Now (2013, James Pondsolt). Sutter (Miles Teller) is a charismatic high school senior who has built the reputation for being the life of the party. He plays hard, works little, and drinks often. His lack of ambition for the future and desire to live for the moment are the embodiment of the teenage spirit, the "spectacular now" of the present. When he feels drawn to Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a quiet and intelligent girl with hopes for the future, he's ultimately confronted with the vapidity of his lifestyle and the potential future (or lack thereof) it holds. Honest, contemplative, charming, and insightful, The Spectacular Now could be considered a version of Ecclesiastes set in the life of a suburban America teen.

Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki). Hayao Miyazaki's animated masterpiece is a meditation on childhood, a prophetic voice for environmental care, and an ambitious fantasy that elicits admiration and wonder. A 10-year-old girl, Chihiro, wanders into an abandoned amusement park with her parents as they move from the city to the country. The reluctant Chihiro's fears are affirmed when her parents are suddenly turned into pigs and the family tumbles into a world of spirits, dragons, witches, and monsters. It's difficult to describe Chihiro's journey--Spirited Away is a film that simply must be seen, as its visuals, story, and imaginative grandeur are both childlike and mature, a perfect metaphor for the adolescent journey.

Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour). The first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia was also the first feature-length film from a Saudi female filmmaker. The story centers on Wadjda, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of owning a new green bicycle in order to race her neighborhood friend, Abdullah. The film addresses themes of gender roles, religion, marriage, and childhood as Wadjda's struggle to procure the bike parallel her struggle to grow up as an independent young woman (who wears purple-laced Converse shoes!) in a Muslim culture. An inspirational and affecting film, Wadjda joins the ranks of The Kid with a Bike, Breaking Away, and Bicycle Thieves as a bicycle-themed coming-of-age masterpiece.

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

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