Let’s Go to the Movies: Movies That Foster Independence, for Independent People

Hi readers,

I was going to start a new batch of serious posts today, but then I realized a lot of my ideas can be tied into back-to-school season, which generally runs from August to September. Since it’s still officially July, and since most kids don’t start school until late in August, I wanted something to fill this last week’s slot. And, after the serious post of last week, I needed something fun.

My first idea was to do another book post, but then I thought, what if I need that idea again and realize I’ve run out of books? So I turned to another medium I’ve always enjoyed: film. I once had a film professor disparagingly tell me that “Movies are not just stories set to music,” but films do tell stories. It’s one of the most important things they can do, if not the reason they exist. As beautiful as books are, sometimes you want the visual aspect of a story as well.

So today, I’m going to list some of my favorite films that I believe help foster independence for children and young adults. Therefore:
1. The focus will be on that audience. Most ratings will probably be in the G- to PG-13 range. That’s also a reflection of personal media choices because I never liked the hard-core R-rated stuff.
2. Protagonists do not necessarily have disabilities. Those who do may be a reflection of a certain time period and thus, not the best role models for PWDs. The goal here is to get young people with disabilities to look at a film and say, “The things I can learn/emulate here go beyond disability/my life is not all about disability.”
3. Protagonists must show some form of independence within their films, whether that’s physical or emotional, or develop in such a way that they could achieve full independence down the road.

Here we go–your fun not-quite-bonus post:

Ever After. (PG-13). This is the first film I thought of when I decided to do this list. Being a chick, I love a good old-fashioned chick flick, and I’ve adored the Cinderella story since I knew what it was. Protagonist Danielle de Barbarac is my favorite Cinderella ever written. Her time period, the sixteenth century, makes her much truer to what I think the original Cinderella would’ve been. The fact that she’s also smart and physically and emotionally tough makes her a great role model for girls and guys. She doesn’t think men should rule the world, but she doesn’t think they’re all pigs, either. She rescues herself in subtle ways even before she physically escapes those who would use and abuse her. What saves her? Reading–knowing there is a world beyond what she knows. Staying close to the people who still love her, like the servants in her home. And most importantly, refusing to allow her spirit to be broken.

12 Years a Slave. Yes, this one is rated R and with good reason. Older teens and adults only; slavery is not pretty and should in my opinion never be glossed over unless you are legitimately trying to introduce it to kids. However, Solomon Northrup is a character who goes for the guts of independence. He is physically in bondage and so needs to find physical freedom. Since he can’t do that right away–we’re talking about a three-hour film that spans decades–the filmmakers focus on his emotional state and what he has to fight to remember–namely, that he is a man of worth, that he has a name and a home and a family, and that he has dignity. I also like that the filmmakers don’t romanticize everything once Solomon does get what he wants. He still has to deal with his slavery’s fallout. I think that’s true of a lot of PWDs too; even if we transcend people’s low expectations, we may be left with scars, and that’s okay.

Dead Poets’ Society. (PG-13) This one is unique in that protagonist John Keating is not the one finding freedom. He has already achieved it. He knows who he is and he’s okay with that. He appreciates the world around him and believes there are always new ways to do things. The independent spirit here comes from the boys Keating shares his life with. They aren’t expected to think for themselves, so encountering a teacher who literally encourages them to rip textbooks apart is, to put it mildly, a shock. If you’ve ever seen this one, you also know some of the characters’ bids for personal freedom don’t end well. But again, that’s realism, and it’s so wrenching in places that I have to give the filmmakers credit for doing it well. If you can make the viewer cry without manipulating her or him, and make the viewer cheer, even for characters that don’t get the happy ending, you have succeeded.

Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain (PG). This one is a Christina Ricci/Anna Chulmsky classic that many people don’t recognize–it kind of has a cult following. On the surface, it’s your classic city-girl-meets-country-girl-and-they-find-gold adventure story. Actually though, it’s more than that. The “country girl,” whose name is Jody Salerno, is also the town troublemaker, or so everybody says. She has a very rough home life and an abusive stepfather (well, sort of–he’s really just her mom’s boyfriend) who the whole town thinks is a good guy. Jody sincerely believes in the legend of a woman named Molly Morgan who disguised herself as a man to get a job as a miner and found heaps of gold inside a local mountain. Jody’s goal is to find the gold as a means to freedom. Her friend Beth isn’t so sure about all this, but goes along. The two girls end up finding a friendship that frees them both physically and emotionally from the labels and expectations they have placed on them and place on themselves.

Where the Red Fern Grows (PG). I know, I said I didn’t care for the book and I really don’t. I read it at a time when I was forced to read certain things for school, and everything my teacher chose seemed to be about boys. That being said, the book and movie have some good independence lessons in them. Protagonist Billy has to work for what he wants–namely, the two dogs Old Dan and Little Ann. Once he has them, he becomes responsible not only for their care and training but for the bond he holds with them during the coon-hunting contests he enters. In that sense, it’s much more than your classic “boy and his dogs” flick. The dogs are not necessarily the heroes here, and Billy isn’t a hero just because he comes of age. He’s a hero and worthy of emulation because he takes responsibility, works hard, and faces up to obstacles.

Anna and the King (PG-13). I actually like this version better than the musical it’s based off, although the musical itself is good. This version is far less glossy and family-friendly, and I appreciate that. At first glance, freedom does not exist in this film. It’s about colonialism and the often disturbing rule of a Siamese monarch who thinks X is X on Monday but can be Y on Tuesday if he chooses. But there is an independent spirit here. It exists in Anna, not only because she’s a classic “strong heroine” but because she has to come to grips with the fact that her British upbringing and beliefs don’t work for everybody in every situation. She’s eventually able to do that, and to appreciate Siamese culture without becoming immersed. For King Mongkut’s part, he learns similar lessons, albeit reluctantly at times. This allows him to find some relief from being the heavy head that wears the crown.

October Sky. PG-13. This is a movie I reluctantly watched as a kid with my dad, figuring I’d be bored out of my mind because it was about boys, coal miners, and homemade rockets. For a literary, romantically-minded gal, I thought, yawn-fest. Boy, was I wrong. You root for Homer Hickam and his friends from the first few minutes, and they are well-developed characters worth rooting for. I also love the teacher, Ms. Riley, who functions as a mentor but doesn’t interfere. Even Homer’s dad, who seems like a jerk at face value, isn’t really a bad person. He’s just a walking example of what happens when you become trapped in what other people expect for you, or when the one option you always counted on crumbles in front of you. Physical independence is mentioned here because Homer and his friends want to escape their dying coal-mining town. But the film is much more about emotional freedom, as well as how young teens and adults should reconcile finding their own happiness with love and respect for family.

Still Alice (PG-13). I haven’t seen this one yet but am going to go ahead and recommend it because it seems to deal so well with early-onset Alzheimer’s and gives us a protagonist who does her best to cope, not just curl up and die or become an “inspiration.” There’s a book, too; read the book first if you can wait because the book is usually better. πŸ™‚

Temple Grandin (PG). Temple Grandin has gotten some flak from me because although she is a wonderful woman and a paragon of the autism community, she’s also one of the only famous PWDs most temporarily able-bodied folks can name. Despite this, the docudrama about her that stars Claire Danes is engaging and refreshingly real. The filmmakers didn’t scrimp on the truth. Temple’s mom was maligned as a “refrigerator mother,” institutionalization was recommended, and quite frankly, growing up, Temple went through hell because of her autism. The fact that she not only transcended all that, but stayed true to herself and her interests, is wonderful. So too is the fact that Temple isn’t portrayed as some saint. She gets upset and sad. She does “socially inappropriate” things, and she challenges people who chastise her for it. If you make her mad, she will make you sorry. And I love those things about her.

Schindler’s List, The Book Thief…etc. If it’s about the Holocaust, again, you’ll find the triumph of freedom and the human spirit there. Be careful which ones you choose for preteens and young teens for obvious reasons. For older teens and adults, I also recommend the Winds of War/War and Remembrance miniseries based on the book by Herman Wouk. It’s a marathon–my family and I watched one video a night over six weekends or so. It is worth it, though. Caution: Some very graphic scenes involving concentration camps and gas chambers, but well worth the forced looks if you’re up to them.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (PG). You could argue that the whole franchise has an independence theme because the characters are trying to free themselves and their school from Voldemort and his evil forces. However, I’d pick the inaugural film as the best example because it’s the one where Harry finds out his wizard heritage and has to reconcile that with his miserable Muggle childhood. He has to decide what he’s going to believe about himself and how he will act, which in turn influences his decisions for that movie and the rest of the series. Those initial decisions are ones we must all make in the quest for freedom, arguably PWDs in particular.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (PG). What, you really thought you could read a Christian’s blog and not see this one? πŸ˜‰ Again, the whole trilogy fits, but the first film is my favorite for the independence element. There is a physical element to freedom here; Narnia is, after all, in bondage to the White Witch. Edmund ends up in physical bondage as well. However, what I really love about this movie is how the Pevensie kids have to learn to embrace their true identities: as heroes, and as kings and queens who can use their freedoms and spirits for the good of Narnia and themselves in the real world.

Despicable Me. (PG). It might seem like an odd choice, but this is one of my favorite independence-driven films for kids. Why? Because villainous Gru actually develops during its run. He initially adopts Margo, Edith, and Agnes for his own gain, but they do grow on him. This forces him to make a choice between being the world’s greatest villain temporarily, or the world’s greatest dad forever. It’s a real-life parenting struggle and a commentary on the choices we make. Will we make the ones that seem right but leave us in bondage and longing? Or will we make the ones that lead to a new kind of greatness we didn’t anticipate?

Fiddler on the Roof. (G). Since this is a musical with a long running time, and does gently but firmly deal with some harsh realities, I’d recommend this for kids nine and older. The major focus here is how Tevye’s daughters break from tradition to make their own choices in husbands. Yet there are other, subtler examples of the struggle for freedom in the film. For example, Tevye has to deal with the fact that tradition, taken too far, may cause him to forfeit freedom and family. He also has to make some hard choices when it becomes impossible to remain a devout Jew in Anatevka. Even characters who seem like archetypes of the rules and the Old Ways, like Yenta, embody freedom in some way. Yenta’s matchmaker shtick, for instance, shows she’s actually a cool lady who understands more than she lets you think.

The Secret Garden. (G or PG depending on version; I recommend either the 1993 version or 1975 BBC miniseries). As I’ve said before, Colin is a bad example of a character with a disability because he’s spoiled, pitied, and only becomes pleasant as he learns to walk again/”gets well.” But he does find emotional independence in learning that the world doesn’t revolve around him. Mary also finds emotional independence from the antisocial tendencies and spoiled upbringing that basically stunt and cripple her until she finds the garden, and real friends in people like Dickon, Martha, and Ben Weatherstaff.


Because I’ve talked about a few of these before, I’m going to go ahead and list them but only briefly discuss their benefits.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is a character with a disability who’s also a great example of someone who does not exist to be inspiring. In actuality, he just wants to be a normal guy. He’s physically strong, yet emotionally open. He’s raised to think the world is cruel but lives life in a way that says the opposite. He does get independence from Frollo, but also helps others achieve freedom. The fact that he doesn’t get a classical happy ending is also a strong point. Not for young kids due to Frollo’s darkness/sexual obsession. 12 and over despite G rating.

Frozen. Families can focus on Elsa’s ice powers, how they keep her in bondage, and how she and Anna both free themselves from the literal and figurative ice in the story.

Wreck-it Ralph. Ralph and Vanellope aren’t classically “disabled,” but they are treated as outcasts, and Vanellope’s “glitch” is treated much like a real-life disability. Families can discuss how both characters deal with and transcend the expectations placed on them, as well as how the villain’s thirst for attention took his freedom away.

Finding Nemo. Parents, if you’ve got a kid with a disability, sit down and watch this with them. Kids can learn from Nemo’s adventurous spirit despite his bad fin, as well as find comfort in the fact that Nemo loses confidence sometimes and needs help from mentors like Gil. Parents can learn from Marlin’s overprotectiveness but also find encouragement in his tireless devotion to his son.

Beauty and the Beast. The freedom motif here covers the Beast’s enchanted imprisonment, the figurative imprisonment he feels at being seen as a monster, and how Belle helps free him from it. There’s also discussion fodder about why Belle might feel trapped in her small town, the expectations placed on her, and why her father is so mistreated. Remember, part of independence is the freedom to be different, while still being kind and generous to others.

Toy Story 3. Again, the whole franchise is good, but this is the one I think embodies independence. It’s not just about the physical escape from Sunnyside Day Care; it’s about how Woody and the gang have to free themselves to accept a new owner, and how Lotso and other villains suffer because they wouldn’t release their hearts from emotional prisons after getting hurt.

So, if you’re looking for a good late summer flick to share with the kids or teens, pop some popcorn and celebrate freedom through film.

*Note: Where are The Giver, Divergent, and similar films: I chose not to include these because the parallels are obvious and because they have been very hyped up. I’d rather focus on lesser-known choices or ones that are popular but don’t carry obvious overtones.


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