Movies are a spectacular medium for telling a story and also relating a message. One of the main reasons that I believe that movies can be so transformative is that they work a lot like memories. They are not the full story because showing every small detail would be exhausting and detract from the overall point. Also they tend to be “larger than life” which is what we often do with our memories. We do not have a completely accurate recollection of the situation, often our emotion about the situation tends to give more color to them.
For these reasons and many others, movies are great teachers. They give us audience to experiences that we may have never had. It’s done in safe environment. We can have peak emotions while taking whatever information is on display and assimilate it as our own. Below is my list of movies that a high school age boy-man should see in order and what they should extract from them. They are listed in a tenuous order where the lessons build on top of each other but in the binge watching culture of today, the order may not matter as much. By the end of this list there may be an accusation that I have a “man crush” on Matt Damon but that crown belongs to Ryan Reynolds!
There are a ton of spoilers in the descriptions of each movie. So if you want to go in with a clean slate, just refer the list below to start and return to this post for the descriptions and takeaways:
- The Martian
- The Matrix
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
- The Breakfast Club
- The Wizard of Oz
- Dead Poet’s Society
- Good Will Hunting
The Martian (2015) – This movie has probably the most overarching message that young men need to have ingrained. Each of us has exactly one job on this planet or that planet: FCO (Figure Crap Out). Throughout this great story, Matt Damon’s character keeps getting sucker punched by circumstances. Every time that he comes up with an answer, a new problem arises. Despite all of issues that he has, his determination to FCO is the key component to his success and the lesson that needs to be carried out of the movie. I use the acronym FCO because “responsibility” seems stuffy and oppressive but that’s all that I’m talking about. The ability to respond to a situation coupled with the recognition that it’s on you to do so. Thumbs are a feature that separates humans from much of the animal kingdom. Although they help with our ability to grasp things, I believe in the concept of “thumbs before fingers.” Point at yourself first with the thumb before pointing at anyone else with the finger.
The Matrix (1999) – After the Martian, the next step is to recognize that each of us has exactly one possession in this world: the mind. The body and the mind are definitively linked but “the body cannot live without the mind.” This movie can be taken to so many places philosophically. The main one that I would focus on to begin with is that of belief. While the Martian had a focus on the ability to respond, it takes belief in one’s abilities to engage with situations. Although uploading information directly to the brain through a computer program has not happened (yet), the picture painted is relatively accurate. In order to navigate successfully through life, one must acquire skills. As skills are layered one on top of the other, belief is constructed. Unlike the Matrix, this takes time and deliberate effort in the real world but it is worth it. Believing in yourself long enough to make things happen is crucial.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) – I would absolutely love for all of the philosophical concepts covered in this movie to hit home with the young men who watch it. Right down to the LIFE motto which has so much to offer. However if just one thing was to be extracted from this film, the idea of connecting your dream world to the real world would be it. Humans are special in a variety of ways but our ability to imagine things then make them happen is one of our greatest strengths. Walter’s life starts out as a collection of day dreams where he escapes his reality. In the end, he starts engaging with life and has better experiences than most of his daydreams. All of our actions start in our minds but if they stay there, then they only exist in the hypothetical. We must transpose our dreams into the real world in order to give them life.
Rocky (1976) – You’re going to lose! This may not seem like a very positive message to take in. However at times, the odds are going to be so astronomically against you that it may seem like trying isn’t worth it. People are going to tell you that you’re crazy. In those circumstances, you need to find a version of success that is in line with who you are and stretch yourself. There are magical moments throughout this film including the 14th round knockdown. Probably the most important comes prior to the fight where Rocky admits to himself and the woman that he loves, exactly who he is and what he expects of himself. Power is not always displayed through a punch. Often power is ability to be vulnerable and defenseless to the people that matter. Although most of the movies thus far have focused on going for the prizes that are out there to be won, Rocky is a reminder that winning is not everything. There are ways to go through life as a “success” without winning every time. So be prepared to be punched in the face!
The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Like so many of the movies on this list, there are a variety of takeaways. Even though the main character is a teenage girl on an adventure to get herself home, I’ll focus on the great and powerful Oz. This is a man who has created a reputation of great prestige and power for himself. In the end, he is only a small man hiding behind a curtain who is trying to project a fearsome alter ego. Each and every one of us will have to put a version of ourselves out into the world. Many of the people that you will meet will be exactly like the Wizard of Oz, lots of theatrics to make themselves seem important. Eventually we realize that the Wizard was valuable because of what he had to offer the travelers, not his big persona. So as you project yourself into the world decide who you will be. Also be on the look out for people who are hiding behind the curtain.
The Breakfast Club (1985) – I’d like to believe that the walls of cliques in high schools have broken down slightly since this movie came out. Unfortunately I don’t know that it’s true. Even if it is, there are still valuable things to be taken from the film. Mostly it involves self-reflection and understanding your place within the social strata of your world. Ideally everyone in your school, town, etc. would get along wonderfully. Unfortunately that’s not very realistic. So recognizing how you perceive and are perceived by others is extremely important. You don’t need to live in the box that others try to put you into but knowing that you’ve been put in the box helps if you want to break out of it.
Dead Poet’s Society (1989) – Similar to The Breakfast Club, the ideas of conformity and living in a school community are on full display. Whether it is teachers, parents or peers; there will always be pressures to become what other people want you to be. There is nothing wrong with people trying to influence you. Generally it is done with a certain amount of caring for your well being. However the teenage years are a time for self-discovery. Figuring out who it is that you want to be. I’m not calling for all out revolt against the powers that are trying to influence you. But rather a recognition of the pull of the things that make you feel most alive versus the push of those in positions of power in your life. In most cases there is a balance to be struck. The death of Neil toward the end of the film is a cautionary tale about failing to communicate. The Dead Poet’s Society is all about expressing one’s self honestly. Try to find your voice.
Rounders (1998) – On a surface level this movie is absolutely about poker but it has several layers underneath that are worth exploring for a young man. First is the concept of friendships and loyalty. The movie does a good job of putting loyalty on full display while also warning against blind loyalty to people who may no longer deserve it. The reason why I truly put this movie on the list is the scene with Mike in the Russian bath house. He tells Joey Knish about an encounter with Johnny Chan. “I’m just going to outplay the guy, this hand.” So many of us get overwhelmed by how big our goals are in this world when it all comes down to this. Are you going to give it your all in this moment? Are you willing to bet on yourself? If you’re not, then who else will?
Swingers (1996) – This movie is on the list for a very specific purpose. As a young man gets into the dating world, there is bound to be rejection either external or internal. Although you may never hear the word “no” from a girl but there is still rejection because you rejected the idea of asking. The story that each of us has running inside of our own heads about who we are and what we are capable of is crucial. After years of being tentative with women in the singles world, Swingers gave me a new insight. If I approached a girl and she “rejected” me, it had very little to do with me and more to do with her perception of me and the perception I projected. This is a skill like any other that must be honed and practiced over time. The “bear” discussion between Mike and Trent in the middle of the movie is the key. There are ancillary parts about dealing with a breakup but overall this movie got me to believe in all that I had at my disposal to “kill the bunny”.
Good Will Hunting (1997) – This is another film that has layers to it. Although it could be dissected from a variety of angles. We’ll focus in on the romantic relationship. Will has put up walls and created masks to protect himself from both past and future pain. That constant state of protection keeps him from all of the possibility that is banging at his door. He is so afraid to admit who he is that he creates a fake world that he shows to other people and denies possible opportunities to move on to a better existence. His relationship with Skylar is tumultuous at best but that is a result of his protection strategy. The movie Swingers was all about how to get your foot in the door long enough to get someone interested. Once you are inside, you need to let the other person see who you are. Teenage relationships are supposed to be like chemistry experiments. They are supposed to blow up in your face from time to time but you learn and progress based on what you’ve learned. If you are always in protection mode in order to avoid being hurt, no one will see your imperfections. That may seem like a great strategy until you actually find someone who you want to let in, you’ll have no practice.
These are most definitely not the only movies available that could have an impact on a young man’s life. These are just the ones that I’ve selected at the moment. I’m sure that each person out there has at least one that could be added with good reason. So in the comments below, give me your suggestions. Even I had trouble keeping it to just ten. Below is my honorable mention. So with that film in mind as I finish this post up, don’t just be a consumer! Take these films into your life (RESPONSIBLY of course!)
Fight Club (1999) – This is a film with great possibility but it comes with a lot of distractions for the young teenage mind. So I put it on the list very tentatively realizing that many will get sidetracked by the sex, violence and mayhem; missing the point completely. Although Fight Club focuses principally on the underground club that encourages violence and eventually mass destruction, the key component to the entire story is the relationship between the “two” main characters. The two is in quotations because they are both Tyler Durden. Tyler is split in two. Each version brings something to the table but Brad Pitt’s character leads the charge into uncharted territory. He is everything that the other version of himself is not. He’s confident and capable! This is taken to the extreme of course but it is something all of us have within us.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”