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Thoughtful: Films to Watch

The way with film is a way of growth; film is a medium for shared exploration of this life, growing ourselves and growing together with others. Through film, going places we might not ever go, living vicariously in scenarios we might not ever experience, we enjoy gaining new insights into life and love and living. We can explore widely and see many aspects of life.

On the other hand, not all films are worth our time. Plenty of films are made only to turn a quick profit by feeding peoples’ less than admirable desires and attitudes — and films may do so even without overtly playing to the usual types of questionable content. Even if a film has a reason for ugly content, it can send some of us off in the wrong direction if we only revel in the ugliness. And then, each of us may have areas where the issues a film wrestles with simply hit too close to home.

Choosing films to see is a personal matter, and the most important questions about it have to do why we choose to see any particular film. It’s a good thing to escape for a bit, but is it all and only about escape? Do we care what people are doing to each other on screen — do we even want to indulge in ugliness for a bit? Do we sometimes sell our hearts out as we escape to the passing pleasure of deadly revenge, fantasy romance, or other life-sapping endeavors? Or, do we keep our hearts in the game, wanting both to enjoy the film and to come away changed? Perhaps enjoy it because we come away changed? Are we looking for life at the theater? Does film become a place of shared experience and exploration of life with those around us?

Here are some thoughts about our decisions on which films to see:

  • Consider a film’s heart above its content. Content is an important consideration, but ratings are not a reliable indicator of whether to bypass a film because of ugly content. Two films can have the same rating and the same reasons listed for the rating, and yet one might be ugly and the other not. Beauty can be hidden inside ugliness or revealed by it, so ugly content can contribute to a film’s heart of Beauty. If you hear concerns about a film’s content, ask about what the film was exploring. This may give you a sense of whether the content might be organic to the heart of the film. Or, ask someone whom you trust who has seen the film to make the distinction between gratuitous and organic ugly content.
  • Consider your heart in relation to the film. The single most important set of factors concerns you and your readiness for any given film. If, for you as an individual, viewing a film’s content may send you down a fruitless path, it’s probably best to avoid the film. You want the film to be appropriate for you individually, and you want to be ready and able to experience the film in a healthy way. Ask these questions about yourself in relation to the film:
    • Who are you? Knowing yourself is the most important factor in making personal film choices. What happens when you see various kinds of film content? Where are you weak or strong? What are the areas in your life where you need to grow? How do you need to be stretched? What types of people do you have a hard time loving and so you need to understand them better by walking in their shoes? Knowing yourself also means knowing what you can take. For some, certain things touch the pains of their lives too closely. We want to grow our weak places, but we shouldn’t violate ourselves in the name of being broad-minded about film.
    • Are you ready — really ready — for the film’s content? Readiness to see a film begins with what you can handle in a healthy way. Some are simply be too young — whether psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually — to handle well certain content and themes. Does ugly content reinforce your tendencies to treat people poorly? It should not. Does certain content feed distracting fantasies of love, relationship, or wealth? It should not. For reasons like these, it may best to stay away from a given film — but even so, you’ll still want a plan for strengthening your weak places.
    • What do you want from the film? What is your motivation to see a particular film? Do you want to see a film because of its ugly content? You should not. Your motivation for engaging with film should be to live fully and to learn to live even more fully, to enrich and deepen your life and your heart. This might be by laughing for a while with a light-hearted film that plays off our human foibles. It might be through a film that explores deep, even dark, places in your heart. Part of the film experience is getting away to see something different — but don’t sell your heart out in the process by reveling in and enjoying ugly things.
    • Are you stretching yourself? It’s lovely to see a wide variety of films. It’s beautiful to have a propensity to enter in where we know we need to grow. You might even explore stories that you know you don’t like with the express intent of learning to love some new aspect of life. If we might play off stereotypes for a moment: Men, go see a chick flick not because she wants you to, but because you need to learn to love what’s soft and beautiful. Women, see action films and crime flicks that make you wrestle with the dark side. And for all of us: Go see well-made kids’ films, too. Be a child again. Let’s get outside ourselves.
    • What do you think you’ll walk away with? After learning what you can about the film and examining your heart and motives, sum it up by asking yourself, “What do I think I’ll walk away with?” Of course, the film may quite surprise you but, going in, can you expect to be better for having seen the film? “Better” might mean simply that laughter gave you a fresh perspective on life, or it might mean that you were deeply impacted and changed. Either way, can you expect to find life at the theater with that specific film?
  • Your community. With whom can you experience the film and talk about it? We are relational beings, and in a healthy community we tend to correct each other. As together we discuss and question and process what we see in film, and as active seekers, willing to learn, gently, boldly, and lovingly challenging one another, we open ourselves to deeper levels of growing through film. With the support of a strong community, we can be more adventuresome in the films we explore.
  • The film itself. In choosing films to see, we want to take care, but we can take too much care. Surely we want to see more good films than bad, but the more tightly we control what we see, the more we risk missing the fun of finding life in unexpected places. Basic information (director, general plot line, etc.) can tell you something about the film, but stereotyping of a filmmaker’s work and quick judgments from available information are of mixed value in making a film choice — individual films can depart from the stereotypes. Watching a preview tells you something about the type of audience the filmmakers are aiming for and can give you a sense of the style and content of the film. The single best way to decide is to get the recommendation of someone who knows both the film and you as an individual. See the list of sample film review sites for some pointers on online resources.
  • Your cultural context. If your neighbors and colleagues at work are talking about a film, seeing it too allows you to enter the conversation. In charitably discussing a film — even (or especially) a controversial one — you get to know others better, and you can develop deeper relationships that respect and challenge differences: you learn from them, and they learn from you. Charitable discussion draws people together, unlike the battle stance that different religious and secular groups can adopt toward each other. If you are concerned about a film, a response born in love might be too see the film and then write to the filmmakers — using a polite, respectful, constructive tone — about your concerns and how they might address those concerns in a manner that is in keeping with the studio’s goals (e.g., broad appeal).

Once you make your choice, sit back and engage for the ride. Maybe the film will scare you, maybe it will thrill you. Maybe you’ll laugh, maybe you’ll cry. Maybe you’ll be happy, maybe you’ll be angry. But any way it hits you, the deepest enjoyment is in getting better through the experience of film. In making film choices, there’s a sense in which we lay our money down and take our chances. Once we’re watching the film, the real question becomes: Can we open ourselves to hear what the film is saying? Through the film, are we open to God’s writing? When the movie starts, how we watch the film is much more important than which one we chose.

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