My wife went on a four-day out-of-state retreat recently, leaving me at home with our 15-year-old son. We had lots of free time, because it was summer break, so I decided we should binge on a little movie tutorial. I wanted to expose my son to the movies I regard as essential viewing because of their cultural and historical relevance.
Here are the seven movies we watched, all of which I think every parent should view with their teenagers. One caveat: Check out each of these movies on one of the many parent-friendly websites that provide guidance about sexual content, violence and language. Every parent has different standards and every teenager is unique in terms of what they can handle.
“Witness” (1985). My son objected at first, particularly after seeing the trailer. “A detective story? In Amish country? There’s a barn-raising scene? Are you kidding me, Dad?” I implored him to at least watch the first few minutes with me before rendering final judgment. It worked. He was totally drawn in to the Harrison Ford movie, and I think it’s because “Witness” is not only about a man trying to solve a murder while saving his own life, but also about someone immersing himself in a culture that is completely different from his own. That changes him in important ways even as he struggles to hold on to his beliefs and values. That’s where the conflict plays out and makes “Witness” so compelling. That and the barn-raising scene, which my son actually thought was pretty cool.
“Léon: The Professional” (1994). Gary Oldman plays a psychotic, drug-addled Drug Enforcement Administration agent intent on hunting down and eliminating a very young Natalie Portman. Standing in his way is her neighbor, an illiterate Italian hit man named Léon (Jean Reno). It is a violent movie with many powerful scenes, including when Portman stands at Léon’s front door, holding a bag of groceries, after her entire family has been gunned down. She cries and begs him to take her in because “if you don’t, I’ll die tonight, I know it.” Léon hesitates, not wanting to get pulled into any of this, but decides to help. Every young person needs to know that at some point they will have to choose whether to help someone even though it may put them at personal risk.
“Hoosiers” (1986). This is a fictionalized story of the 1954 Milan High School team that won the Indiana boys’ basketball state championship despite the small size of the school. I watched it with my older son 20 years ago and stopped the video a dozen times, asking him, “Okay, now why does the coach toss those players out of their first practice, what point is he trying to make?” My favorite scene is at the end, when they are in the final huddle of the championship game, with seconds to go and only one shot to win. The coach, played by Gene Hackman, orders a certain play just as he has throughout the entire movie. But this time his players disagree and recommend something different. He accedes to their request, which to me is the essence of good parenting — the ability to know when to hold firm on a decision vs. when to trust your child’s judgment.
“All the President’s Men” (1976). We watched this one with my wife, a former journalist who also taught college journalism and made every class watch this film. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The two are absolutely dogged in their pursuit of the truth. They were dismissed, mocked and threatened, but they followed the story wherever it led, which was to the downfall of a corrupt president. In a time when our country’s leadership is calling journalists “the enemy of the people,” it is good to watch reporters so dedicated to their profession.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962). This film, based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, can help teens understand the complicated history of race relations in the United States and why we are at the point we are now. It is a movie about injustice and how deeply racism has been ingrained in U.S. culture. It also wonderfully portrays how a child views the world in all its beauty, courage, tragedy and irony.
“Norma Rae” (1979). I knew Sally Field as Gidget and then the Flying Nun when I was growing up. Only as an adult was I introduced to her as a tough-as-nails union organizer in this movie. She plays a single mother of two children working in a cotton mill in North Carolina. The working conditions in the mill are horrendous, and at first she is reluctant to take any kind of leadership role in persuading workers to form a union. But when her own father dies on the factory floor, she becomes emboldened. Management threatens to fire her; that does not stop her. They do fire her; that does not stop her. The union drive is successful, giving workers a voice. In today’s vernacular, we’d say “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
“RBG” (2018). This one is still playing in some theaters as I write. You may not agree with the politics of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but watching this movie will give anyone an appreciation for her work ethic, her intelligence and her willingness to take a stand no matter how unpopular. She also befriended someone she was diametrically opposed to on just about every legal matter, the late Justice Antonin Scalia. It is an important lesson in today’s divisive political climate.
Mark Redmond is the executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Vermont and the author of “The Goodness Within: Reaching Out to Troubled Teens With Love and Compassion.”