movies and tv shows that display radical empathy
November 10, 2016 10:09 PM   Subscribe

What are some movies and tv shows that display radical empathy? Another way to phrase what I'm looking for might be a complex, non-judgmental understanding of what it is to be humans, specifically and generally. This kind of storytelling is helping me right now.

This has been a gloomy week for me, and I'm finding solace in movies and tv that seem especially humane. I'm having a hard time explaining exactly what it is I'm looking for. Complex portraits of human beings that feel full and flawed, but understood with kindness.

I've found something of this quality in films by Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Renoir, and Mike Leigh. I've found it in the High Maintenance TV show. I'm looking for more.

I'm normally drawn to things that are pretty arch, even cynical, and stylistically experimental, but I'm not connecting with that kind of thing right now. I'd like to find stories that come from a more simple, kind, empathetic place.

I don't mind if these suggestions are challenging, funny, or sad--they don't need to be feel-good. I'm just trying to stay away from a certain kind of caustic irony and a certain kind of show-offy experimentalism that puts structure above characters. That said, while a lot of the stuff I've cited above has an unobtrusive/naturalistic style, that's by no means a required limitation.

I'll also happily take book recommendations, but my current attention-span is pushing me more toward movies and tv.

Thank you so much for your help.
posted by scarylarry to Society & Culture (47 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Sense8 on Netflix would be a perfect fit for you IMO
posted by deadwater at 10:14 PM on November 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

Rudderless -- sweet and sad and funny little movie I tripped over a few weeks back. Not hugely complex but fairly nuanced and very humane. It's not flawless or anything but diverting enough. The music (actually performed by the actors) is surprisingly great and a crucial part of the sadness and sweetness.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:24 PM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Good will hunting?
posted by speakeasy at 10:45 PM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

This makes me think of the series called Being Human. Apparently there's a British version and an American reproduction; I've only see the American version on Netflix, and liked it. The episodes are examinations of facets of humanity from the perspective of non-humans who were turned into monsters (a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost) against their will, and who are trying to live as humans. For me, it went a bit screwy after the first 8 or so episode, but you might not feel the same. Also, the British version might be different.
posted by StrawberryPie at 11:03 PM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Overnighters.
posted by praemunire at 11:10 PM on November 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Babette's Feast, which is a classic and won an Oscar, and is a very loving portrait of humanity, goodness, striving, and joy -- in many forms among people who are very different. It's funny, but gently and affectionately so.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:16 PM on November 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:17 PM on November 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, the British version of Being Human is great - funny, dark, clever, nuanced. It's about the search for life's every day pleasures and virtues while struggling against inner and outer forces.
posted by Heloise9 at 11:53 PM on November 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

Try Gran Torino. It will give you hope that a mean racist man can have overwhelmingly redeeming qualities.
Have a good cry at the end.
posted by stellathon at 12:05 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Bob's Burgers is one of the most compassionate shows on television. Everyone is a little weird, but not a single plot is about trying to stop someone's weirdness. The kids support each other, the parents adore one another and treasure their children, and even the "mean" kids at school have deeply human drives. The show is radically kind. Even if cartoons have not typically been your jam, give this a go.
posted by Charity Garfein at 12:08 AM on November 11, 2016 [21 favorites]

Bojack Horseman is a really good, really deep show with humor. It is, however, not the... lightest show I'm watching recently.

Arrested development!
posted by Jacen at 12:24 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

From the film makers you list I assume you've already seen Ali: Fear eats the soul. If you haven't watch it as soon as possible. You've already summed it up perfectly with: Complex portraits of human beings that feel full and flawed, but understood with kindness.
posted by coleboptera at 12:26 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

We are in the midst of re-watching Northern Exposure, which is quirky and very genuine. This idea of radical empathy as you describe it is something of a recurring theme - various characters representing an "other" that must be accepted in some way. Sometimes it's obvious like accepting different sexual orientations, races, or cultures, or sometimes more subtle like just accepting different value systems or goals. Characters often talk and help each other through. Characters really range too - right, left, middle, independent etc. but they are all kind.

I have seen some of the British version of Being Human and the first few seasons are great. Can get kinda intense - too much for me at the moment, but so good.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:39 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd recommend Hotell, which is about a group of struggling people who meet in therapy and decide to run away to a hotel to assist each another in performing radical acts of self-help. These people, and their chosen therapies, are quirky, and the group members show no judgment.
posted by acidic at 12:54 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

You could try some Wim Wenders, he fits your description pretty well based on what I've seen of his work. Try Wings of Desire or Paris, Texas.
posted by biffa at 12:58 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Steven Universe. All about radical empathy.
posted by divabat at 1:26 AM on November 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is animated, and might not be your cup of tea, but Steven Universe is great for this in my book. Each episode is only 10 minutes, and it's very affirming from my point of view. If you don't have time to let it slowly sink in and make you fall in love with it, and want a more immediate experience, This link is to a tumblr page that lists the order of episodes you can watch in the beginning to get into the world, without the slightly slow pace of the first half of the first season.
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 1:27 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

sin and illy still alive fits your description, i think - follows a few days in the life of a woman (drug addict, prostitute) in vienna. non-judgemental, relatively sympathetic.

but it's german indie (i saw it with bad spanish subtitles) and i am not sure where you'll find it.
posted by andrewcooke at 2:46 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Gavin and Stacey maybe.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 3:01 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

sorry to post again, but found a review with the (auto-translated) quote "We have to meet drug addicts with respect, not to taboo, but to give them space in which they live decently and - if they want to do so - their drug addiction is only conducive" which i think is relevant to your "radical respect".
posted by andrewcooke at 3:09 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's a three part documentary on YouTube called "Human" that is simply people from around the world taking about their thoughts and experiences, spliced with beautiful scenes from the natural world. They're not narrative, but i found them profoundly moving and peaceful.
posted by spindrifter at 3:35 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

In 1964, Granada television interviewed a bunch of British 7-year-olds. That resulted in a moderately interesting documentary.

Then they decided to interview the same people seven years later, and they made a pretty good documentary comparing who they were at ages seven and fourteen.

Then they did it again when everybody in the group was 21, and again when everybody was 28, and again and again, and the longer it goes on, the more incredible it becomes. The most recent film came out in 2012 and checked in with everybody at age 56. Collectively, the series (called the Up Series) is one of the best and most moving documentaries I've ever seen. It lets you watch a small group of people live their lives in fast forward. They make mistakes and (sometimes) recover from them. They go through good periods and bad periods.

It's had the same director (Michael Apted) for almost the entire run, and he has this probing but non-judgmental style that really helps you understand who his subjects are and where they're coming from. Here's what Roger Ebert said about the documentaries:
They also strike me as an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium. No other art form can capture so well the look in an eye, the feeling in an expression, the thoughts that go unspoken between the words. To look at these films, as I have every seven years, is to meditate on the astonishing fact that man is the only animal that knows it lives in time.
posted by yankeefog at 4:22 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

This might not fit at all... but I thought of the movie Harvey (with James Stewart) while reading your question.
posted by fourpotatoes at 4:37 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think Please Like Me is one of the kindest shows I've ever watched.
posted by dysh at 4:43 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Mike Leigh is the master of this I think. Couple of films that sprang to mind:
- Dead Man Walking - the relationship between Prejean and Poncelet has that sympathetic understanding of complex human emotions I think. Pretty dark subject material though.
- Blue Jasmine (if you haven't sworn off Woody Allen) - complex relationships, flawed characters, quiet naturalistic storyline - I thought this was a really good film.
posted by crocomancer at 4:54 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The movies Chocolat and Phenomenon scratch this itch for me.
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:00 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Last Tango in Halifax.
posted by girlpublisher at 5:25 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

The British series "Call the Midwife" is great for this, I think. (But I can only vouch for the first two seasons).
posted by stillmoving at 6:05 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you'd consider animation, the work of Isao Takahata. Two I would recommend especially are the Tale of the Princess Kaguya and his epic TV series, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother (the latter available via torrents only)
posted by snarfois at 6:12 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

As always, I champion the film or novel CLOUD ATLAS.f
posted by jbenben at 6:31 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Lives of Others (mostly for the last 10 minutes)
posted by johngoren at 6:55 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding Northern Exposure as being permeated with sheer kindness
posted by runincircles at 7:00 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I recently started rewatching My Name is Earl, and I had almost forgotten how much I loved that show. Even the dirtbags on that show are charming and lovable. It was the perfect post-election balm.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:24 AM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by bq at 7:35 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hunt for the Wilderpeople it is seriously so good
posted by capricorn at 8:11 AM on November 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

Being Erica
posted by willnot at 8:44 AM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Moonrise Kingdom comes to mind. The early plot has elements of coldness/indifference, but then the main characters

Also, it's a reality show, but I'd recommend The Great British Bake Off. It's surprisingly good and relaxing. All of the contestants and judges are super nice and competent. Gorgeous filming and set. It just lacks the cattiness and false drama of American reality TV.
posted by TomFoolery at 9:21 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I actually came to this thread to read it, not to post, but as I was reading I thought about Star Trek, especially the Next Generation series. This recent post about an episode where everyone on the ship trusts and respects Dr. Crusher even when she's saying something that seems unbelievable was great - as was the article it linked to, The Radical Feminism of Believing Women. Watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation very often leaves me feeling good about humanity and hopeful about the world.
posted by kristi at 10:04 AM on November 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thank you for all your responses! These are great, and I look forward to new discoveries and welcome revisits.
posted by scarylarry at 10:43 AM on November 11, 2016

Certainly not high art, but the NBC drama Parenthood is on Netflix and it features a large sprawling family that struggles a bit but always comes together to support each other.
posted by mmascolino at 11:15 AM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been a long time since I watched Wonderfalls, but it sprang to mind reading your question. It's by a young Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Hannibal, Pushing Daisies) and stars Caroline Dhavarnas (also Hannibal, etc.) as a clerk at a gift shop at Niagara Falls who is compelled to help people by talking toy animals.
posted by cmoj at 2:57 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Sofia Coppola film Lost In Translation fits the bill for me.
posted by lhauser at 3:44 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you can track it down, Kingdom with Stephen Fry is right up your alley. It's about a solicitor in a Norfolk, England village, and deals with his cases, which range from troubles over a nudist beach to feuding burger vans. There is some more serious content, including a mystery over Kingdom's younger brother's apparent suicide by drowning, but it's not over dramatized.

There are very few courtroom/legal system scenes, with episodes centered around his office/home, and around the village. People are quirky but not over the top. Come to think, it reminds me a little of Northern Exposure.

The show deals with some bigger issues at times, but with warmth and gentleness and humor. It's one of my favorite comfort shows.
posted by Archipelago at 9:10 PM on November 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

How to tame your dragon

The village is terrorized by dragons but one kid befriends a dragon and learns why they act the way they do.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:37 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Little Miss Sunshine!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 10:13 PM on November 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding Please Like Me.

Also, Blunt Talk has some really silly and really kind, lovely characters who are silly and kind and lovely to each other.
posted by taltalim at 7:44 AM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Apartment
The Spirit of the Beehive
To Kill a Mockingbird
Nobody's Fool
City Lights
My Dinner with Andre

For shows, I'm astonished no one has mentioned Six Feet Under yet.
posted by veery at 7:00 AM on November 18, 2016

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