Discussion movies for highschoolers
September 8, 2009 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Help me find some movies to discuss with high schoolers

I work with the high school group at our church, and would like to have a few movie discussion evenings. What movies would you recommend? Topics I'd like to cover are things such as poverty, race, and consumerism. A lot of these kids are typical suburban religious types and I want to broaden their exposure to social issues and help them see past themselves.

The ideal movie would touch on one or more of these sort of issues without being political, heavy handed or preachy about it (I'd like to have an open ended discussion without the movie telling us exactly what to think). Documentarys are great as long as they have a good story and aren't too dry. Also it's a church group so anything too racy might be iffy.

Movies I've already thought about
God grew tired of us
posted by jpdoane to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Not about poverty, race, or consumerism, but Return to Paradise is a perfect movie to discuss with high schoolers. The characters are forced to a difficult and morally gray decision that is clearly laid out for viewers.
posted by chrisalbon at 11:39 AM on September 8, 2009

Final Destination,which all teenagers seem to talk about incessantly, is a contrivance about predestination vs. free will.

(Basically, if it's a scary movie, they'll be engaged.)
posted by rokusan at 11:41 AM on September 8, 2009

posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:43 AM on September 8, 2009

Hold on, why not throw a bit of peer group discussion? What's so bad about "The Breakfast Club," and "Pretty In Pink," or "Sixteen Candles?"

Charity and good humanistic tendencies start at home.
posted by eatdonuts at 11:50 AM on September 8, 2009

Baraka is eye-opening in the way it successfully conveys a sense of both the enormity of the population of the world and of its smallness in universal terms.
posted by odinsdream at 11:50 AM on September 8, 2009

Dead Man Walking.
posted by Sassyfras at 11:50 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The documentaries The Yes Men and The Corporation both address issues of consumerism and poverty, and neither has any content that would be way too much for a high schooler that could handle Crash. Blazing Saddles is possibly one of the best movies about race ever, but is R-rated (lots of racial epithets and other cussing, schnitzengruben).
posted by Cookiebastard at 11:53 AM on September 8, 2009

Hoop Dreams is an observational documentary about both race and poverty, is about two kids in Chicago, and is brilliant and fascinating.
posted by johnofjack at 11:56 AM on September 8, 2009

As a caveat, you may have trouble with any films rated PG13, even though you are dealing with high school kids. I know of several parents who do not allow their high school kids to see PG13 movies. (I also know of one that still prefers G movies for her kids until they reach 16. Needless to say, they don't watch many movies.)

High school kids who haven't seen it might like Clueless, and also are probably not aware that it is based on Jane Austen's Emma. Deals mostly with relationships, but takes on materialism, judgment for social standing, etc. Mean Girls is Tina Fey's take on high school.

Pleasantville would be an excellent film to shake them up a bit, and racism is one of the themes, but I doubt the church would like the way sexuality is addressed in the film.
posted by misha at 11:58 AM on September 8, 2009

Since this is about church, there's an excellent movie about someone going on a dangerous journey who first has to learn the value of humility before God, has to follow in His path, and then has to take that final leap of faith.

I'm talking of course, of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was used at our youth retreat back in 1991.
The ideal movie would touch on one or more of these sort of issues without being political, heavy handed or preachy about it
Movies I've already thought about
It sounds like you're having trouble finding movies that meet your goals, here.

How about Platoon? It's essentially about a young suburban guy from college (similar background to most of the kids you're dealing with) ending up in the military surrounded by people from all different backgrounds, races, and walks of life to take part in a shared experience... and then going on to have the knowledge that after this, they're going to go back to their old lives again.

Also: Goodfellas-- the allure of criminality ("the temptation of evil"), how consumerism actually makes you come across like a tacky person, and how at the end of it all people are desperate to hold on to their last bits of their possessions, even when their lives are on the line.
posted by deanc at 12:00 PM on September 8, 2009

Topics I'd like to cover are things such as poverty, race, and consumerism.

For poverty, you could always go with a classic, because being poor is pretty much a universal theme. I would suggest Bicycle Thieves as a great film with that theme that kids these days probably wouldn't be exposed to (rather than say, The Grapes of Wrath).

For race Do The Right Thing is the best film I know of on that topic. It's one of the only films I know of that presents racial tensions in a realistic way without seeming contrived or preachy. It also is a good discussion starter because the film itself is more about raising questions than it is about giving answers.

For consumerism, I actually can't think of a good example, other than rather heavy-handed documentaries. Maybe Fight Club? That's probably not a good church group movie though.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:06 PM on September 8, 2009

The Class is a French movie about education, and is maybe the best film about poverty, race, and education that I've ever seen. Very fertile territory for high-school kids to argue about.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:18 PM on September 8, 2009

The Bicycle Thief (Ladri Di Biciclette) (1948)

Cry, The Beloved Country (the 1995 version)
posted by The World Famous at 12:20 PM on September 8, 2009

Seconding Do the Right Thing. I don't think it's too racy, but you might double check. Also:

-Any of the James Dean movies (East of Eden, Giant, or Rebel Without a Cause)
-Spellbound/Mad Hot Ballroom - Both could lead to discussions about race/wealth since they touch on these topics in a very subtle way
-The Fog of War

I loved Baraka, but I'm not sure how much conversation it would generate. Depending on a group and the atmosphere, you could have some kids fall asleep.
posted by hue at 12:24 PM on September 8, 2009

Two classics about race and prejudice:

To Kill A Mockingbird

West Side Story
posted by amyms at 12:29 PM on September 8, 2009

Okay, for something with a more obvious social focus, Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids
posted by odinsdream at 12:30 PM on September 8, 2009

The Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders are a tiny bit outdated, but still great documentaries about marketing and consumption.
posted by googly at 12:30 PM on September 8, 2009

I'm not sure if you could get away with Once Were Warriors, Lee Tamahori's 1994 adaptation of a novel about abuse and poverty among the Maori in New Zealand. It's incredibly intense and quite violent in a realistic fashion, and includes rape and suicide-- which means your kids' parents will probably lose their shit at you for showing it. That all being said, it's an excellent piece on race and poverty.

There's also Salvador Carrasco's The Other Conquest, which is pretty much the movie Mel Gibson probably wanted to make when he shat out Apocalypto (and which predates Gibson's film by a few years). It's about the tensions between the Aztecs and the Spanish in 1520, is mostly in Nahuatl with subtitles, and is a pretty vivid adventure story with a lot of class, race, and religious aspects. (Full disclosure: Carrasco taught intercultural film at my school, although not the semester I took it.)

And God, yeah, Crash was a tough slog for me and I knew I was going to have an exam question on it later. I can't imagine it keeping a bunch of teenagers occupied. (Similar "oh God so boring" experiences for me: Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon and Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking. Both about race and generational mores and somewhat about poverty, but also very dated and cheesy-feeling.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:30 PM on September 8, 2009

How about 12 Angry Men? It's black and white, which might turn some off, but I found it compelling when I was a pup.
posted by midwestguy at 12:33 PM on September 8, 2009

Oh! Right! Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow. Asian-American high schoolers in what's fairly obviously Orange County, California turn to crime to alleviate their suburban angst. It's a taut, authentic-feeling film, and does a number on all the stereotypes around Asians regarding family ties and academic achievement.

(Lin, like Tamahori, went on from awesome little social-commentary films to big-budget stuff-- your kids will know him as the Fast & Furious guy, just as most of them will know Tamahori from the Bond movie he did.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:36 PM on September 8, 2009

You may wish to consider Glory. How about Gran Torino?
posted by sageleaf at 12:42 PM on September 8, 2009

For a combination of race and poverty, I'd recommend Boyz N The Hood. I watched it in ninth grade, and it made a very powerful impression on me. I still consider a few of its scenes some of the most wrenching I've ever seen.

Unfortunately, I don't know what a high school church group can tolerate in terms of sex, drugs, violence and profanity. Boyz N The Hood has at least a sprinkling of all four, and a lot of the last two. All I can say is, it's not gratuitous.

For a different exploration of prejudice, try The Elephant Man. Much tamer than my previous suggestion, but quite wrenching and challenging.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 12:42 PM on September 8, 2009

Ooooh, The Elephant Man is a truly excellent suggestion.
posted by hermitosis at 12:44 PM on September 8, 2009

Fast Food Nation.
posted by rikschell at 12:44 PM on September 8, 2009

My friends and I often joke about the 4 big movies that are "high-school profound." Adults tend to find these flicks a bit tiresome and overwrought, but they have a way of altering a teenager's reality.

Fight Club
Requiem for a Dream
Donnie Darko

Predictable but reliable.
posted by martens at 1:01 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Fourth World War is a great documentary about globalization and poverty. Awesome soundtrack will keep the kiddos awake. The Take is pretty good too.
posted by nestor_makhno at 1:02 PM on September 8, 2009

A lot of these kids are typical suburban religious types and I want to broaden their exposure to social issues and help them see past themselves.

posted by Thorzdad at 1:09 PM on September 8, 2009

How about Dance Me Outside? It's a sort of set of interlinked stories involving (mostly) a couple high-school age kids on a first nations reserve in Ontario.

Apart from being a really good film, it came to mind because it's from the perspective of kids your group's age, and it deals with race issues between whites and first nations in Canada, which is not unlike the white black dynamic in the US in a lot of ways (and this movie doesn't flinch from that) but it would let your audience look at them from an outside perspective, one a little more detached than a movie about white black issues might allow.

It's about kids facing their fear of an uncertain future, about discovering their role in their society, about prejudice and being oppressed for who you are. And it raises some really great issues for later discussion. Hard to find movie for a long time, I understand it's recently been released on DVD.
posted by Naberius at 1:23 PM on September 8, 2009

Real Women Have Curves: deals with ethnicity/immigration, sweatshops, body image. Not preachy, plenty to start a conversation with.
posted by carmen at 1:34 PM on September 8, 2009

martens: "My friends and I often joke about the 4 big movies that are "high-school profound." Adults tend to find these flicks a bit tiresome and overwrought, but they have a way of altering a teenager's reality.

Fight Club
Requiem for a Dream
Donnie Darko

Predictable but reliable.

I'm not sure you want to show Requiem for a Dream to a group of high schoolers in a church...
posted by radioamy at 1:41 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of good suggestions here. I would add to them the suggestion that you should sit down and watch any movie you're seriously considering before showing it and really analyzing a) whether you think it's appropriate for the group and setting you're going to show it in, and b) whether someone else relevant to that group (a parent, someone in the church, etc.) might think that it's inappropriate and cause you grief if you show it.

I have been a teacher of a high-school age church group class and I wouldn't even tell them what my favorite movies were, let alone show them in class, because of the predictable reactions of their parents and other people in the church. Church groups are a situation where it is pretty important to know just how lightly you need to tread. Your mention of Crash makes me think that either you don't remember the content of the film all that well, your church group is way more open to profanity and potentially-offensive content than any church group I've ever been to, or you have not yet started to whittle down the list by eliminating potentially-offensive films.
posted by The World Famous at 1:48 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Totsi was a great movie (It won an oscar) and it incorporates race, poverty and morality. I think it was R for a couple moments with graphic violence, but I think you could definitely skip over them.

If it makes you feel any better I watched this last year in my sophomore English class, and all of our parents were okay with it.
posted by kylej at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2009

Frozen River. Poverty, race, a mother who decides to dabble in illegal activities for subsistence money, and her teenage son who makes a similar decision because he sees how stressed out his mom is about their finances.

The 12 Angry Men suggestion reminds me that I recently saw a trailer for a Russian remake, called 12.

On preview, I'd be dubious about Requiem for churchgoing high school kids too, unless I knew the parents wouldn't freak out over certain scenes. Great movie though.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2009

Wow - thanks for all the suggestions so far. A lot of these I haven't seen myself and I look forward to checking them out whether or not I show them to the kids. As for sex, profanity violence etc, I don't really know what the limits are either. But if it's not gratuitous or exploitive I have no problem trying to push it through. if there's just or or two scenes, I can fastforward through them if I have to. The funny thing is that all these kids watch R rated movies all the time - but if it's a church function I might catch flack for it.

I like the broadening of the categories as well (relationships, coming of age, etc). Really, anything that will help capture the kids interest and introduce questions that help the kids mature in life and faith, especially on topics that they may not have been exposed to within the church before.
Regarding Crash, it's actually been a long time since Ive seen it. From your comments, maybe it's not the best choice. Anyway, keep the suggestions coming
posted by jpdoane at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2009

2nd-ing Hoop Dreams, which is perfect for you.
posted by xammerboy at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2009

The Teaching Tolerance program has some seriously awesome documentaries with teaching kits you should check out. They are free for most educators (including Youth Directors at houses of worship). Here's the PDF order form.

An example:

Mighty Times: The Children's March "The Children's March" tells the story of how the young people of Birmingham, Alabama, braved fire hoses and police dogs in 1963 and brought segregation to its knees. Their heroism complements discussions about the ability of today's young people to be catalysts for positive social change.
posted by Stewriffic at 2:29 PM on September 8, 2009

Smoke Signals and Gattaca are two that come to mind. (Both are PG-13).

Smoke Signals is a story about forgiveness towards those who may have never asked for it, and it's also a movie featuring contemporary Native American culture and the accompanying social issues. Domestic abuse and alcoholism make appearances, but it's also just a funny and lovely film.

Gattaca gets into the idea of bioethics and genetic manipulation, and it's always been hard to figure out how far is too far. The movie makes it obvious that it could end up badly, but when to stop? They even have a little slide show at one point that flashes the names of historic figures and their varying biological weaknesses. As Wikipedia states:
"The story centers on the irony of the perfect Jerome failing to succeed despite being given every advantage while the imperfect Vincent transcends his deficiencies through force of will and spirit."
posted by redsparkler at 2:34 PM on September 8, 2009

Gattaca's a great call.
posted by rokusan at 4:06 PM on September 8, 2009

These kids will hopefully remember this as fondly as I remember my senior-year English teacher showing us foreign films (at his place no less!) I wouldn't have watched such amazing movies without him. None of the ones he showed us are quite what you're looking for, though, with the possible exception of Wings of Desire. It's a beautiful German movie about an angel who came to earth and fell in love with a human. It is, though . . . well, it's a German art film. I loved it but you might hear some snoring. (And on the other hand, there are shocking black and white newsreels of dead children killed in air raids against Germany.)

I second the recommendation of Smoke Signals. There's no movie quite like it.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:52 PM on September 8, 2009

I watched Blade Runner and Stepford Wives as a teen in Philosophy class.
posted by the latin mouse at 4:53 PM on September 8, 2009

Ooh, yes, Glory and Gran Torino. (I'd say that even if I hadn't worked on Gran Torino-- it is a bit violent and the language is, uh, amazingly racist, but it's a good movie for that sort of thing.)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:51 PM on September 8, 2009

Gran Torino is definitely another that I had thought of but forgot to mention. Great movie! Don't know if I can swing it with the language and the R rating, but it would be a great choice.

Funny story about Gran Torino - I saw it with a coworker when we both wanted to get out of the office one afternoon. He suggested it, said he's been wanting to see it. 3/4 of the way through the movie he turns to me and says, "Where are all the car chases!?" I think he thought it would be a different sort of movie :)
posted by jpdoane at 8:38 PM on September 8, 2009

How about Holes?

It's about kids a little younger than high school, but it touches on many of your topics in a very clear and mature way. And it's from a book, so you can go at it from that angle, too.

Also, I loved Better Luck Tomorrow, but it has an extremely violent scene in it, so beware.

But I see you're going to screen them all, so you can decide for yourself.
posted by Gorgik at 9:54 PM on September 8, 2009

Do the Right Thing has been mentioned a few times already, and would be great if you can get away with it. John Sayles' Lone Star is a murder mystery combined with a look at how race plays out in a small Texas border town. (The sound track is great.) El Norte is about a young Guatemalan couple who make their way to the US and might give high school kids a different perspective on immigration issues. Robert Redford's Milagro Beanfield War might work well with high school kids, about a spontaneous backlash to developers coming into a Northern New Mexican town. Finally, I think Bread and Chocolate, a comedy about an Italian man who goes to work in Switzerland, could be used as a more oblique way of generating a discussion about race and poverty.

But definitely watch the movies yourself before you show them. I've lost track of the number of times I've sat my kids down to watch a movie I thought they'd like and then "Oh,yeah, that's why it has an R rating!"
posted by Killick at 12:59 PM on September 9, 2009

Oh shit, John Sayles! You should watch Matewan! Some good discussions there about organized labor, history, and race.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) seems perfect for you.
posted by jayne at 6:09 PM on September 9, 2009

Brother From Another Planet is another good one (and another John Sayles movie). Some violence and drugs (and a yucky eye), but it's got a lot of good stuff in it.
posted by Gorgik at 6:55 PM on September 9, 2009

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