Your teenager is home on a weekend night and you want to watch a movie with actual character development, a movie without animated animals or explosions (including the F-bomb), and without an OSS (obligatory sex scene) that makes you all cringe or dive for the remote.
The plot has to really grab them right from the start, which rules out award winners like Chariots of Fire or A Man for All Seasons; if they can’t relate to it, they’ll pass.
Maybe you also have a twelve-year-old who might decide to watch the movie, and you’d like them to understand it, enjoy it, and not be traumatized. You want a movie that sucks you in and makes you laugh and feel things, a movie that inspires discussions (un-forced, organic discussions of course) about loyalty or ethics or what really matters on the chance that your teen feels chatty when it’s over.
So here’s a list of sleepers that weren’t made in the last eighteen months but hold up exceptionally well, and pair well with teens and popcorn.
It might take some convincing, because nothing explodes in this movie except a man’s ego, but this little gem of a film, based on a true story, slowly grips you like a well-paced thriller.
A young and super good-looking Ralph Finnes plays Charles Van Doren, a college professor from a family of good-looking intellectuals, who is asked to be a contestant on the wildly popular Jeopardy-like TV show, Twenty-One.He’s slumming a little–his family doesn’t do this sort of thing–but the fame is fun until the previous contestant, an awkward Jew from Queens played by John Turturro, gets jealous and begins to tell everyone the game is rigged, they give out the answers to whomever they want to win.
The book the movie was based on was written by the lawyer brought in to investigate, played by a young and also handsome Rob Morrow. Just being real: handsomeness is a factor if your teen is female and maybe even if they’re not, and attractiveness, or lack of it, is part of the plot in this case.
The movie takes place in the late 1950s and has a gorgeous, Mad Men-like aesthetic and Bobby Darin on the soundtrack, used in a way that somehow makes his catchy tunes unsettling. There’s even smart and carefully placed humor in the script, while it flawlessly illustrates vanity, deception, greed and envy, and the other side of the coin–the one that modern teens, used to reality TV, would think of on their own: ambivalence.
Even if you saw it twice when it was more recent, here is a movie that’s easy to watch again because it takes an archetype that’s big and impressive and different than your average person–an astronaut, back when they existed and were larger than life–and shows him through a lens that makes him deeply, incredibly human.
This achingly relatable-ness is where Tom Hanks’ brilliance lies, even when he plays a bad guy. In this case he plays real-life good guy Jim Lovell, the astronaut who commanded a 1970 mission that suffered a critical failure on the way to the moon. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that viewers are riveted even though they know how it turns out, although modern teens, who didn’t learn about the Apollo missions in school or remember them like parents and grandparents, may not know if they guys make it back to Earth or not.
The story revolves not just around getting the men back home safely, a feat of brilliant, spontaneous engineering and leadership, but around the personalities and relationships involved. The acting is superb, the pointy collars and big hair make you feel like you are really there, and unlike the more recent First Man, the writers didn’t throw in a lot of puff-the-story-up fiction (the bracelet in the crater…). These things really happened, and according to the guys who were there, were every bit this dramatic.
Director Ron Howard puts you on the edge of your seat at the end and if you don’t cheer out loud or feel a few tears welling up when that capsule drops into the water, you have no soul.
Catch Me If You Can
At the risk of putting ideas into teens’ heads, this movie is worth watching because Leonardo DiCaprio makes you simultaneously root for the hero and hope he gets caught.
The fact that this is also true story is astonishing; DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, a nineteen-year-old who begins dabbling in check fraud and impersonations, and eventually successfully poses as a commercial pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Abagnale is being chased by a FBI agent throughout the movie, played by Tom Hanks; the two actors are so good at what they do that you can’t decide who the good guy is. The agent discovers something about the criminal: he’s young and brilliant and funny, but he’s lonely, which makes the end of the movie more interesting than just the facts would lead you to believe.
This is one of those movies you have to pause just to get another soda because you can’t miss a single thing.
Here we get to see Captain America (Chris Evans) play a regular guy with problems and some family baggage in this movie about loyalty and parenting. Evans plays the caretaker to his brilliant niece, played by a precocious kid who manages to be adorable but not saccharine, and makes viewers of all ages want to watch her reactions. It’s a fairly predictable plot: her uncle must fight for custody of her and convince the authorities and a grandmother that whatever his less-than-perfect life is lacking, he can make up for with his unconditional love for this little girl. The film gets viewers thinking about choices and repercussions, sacrifice, and wanting something for the right reasons–and the wrong ones.
It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it makes you smile often, and the characters are so darn convincing that you can’t look away. Teens will like the storyline because they can relate to both the child and the uncle, and watching this flawed thirty-something try to be a good father figure is endearing and inspiring.
We Bought a Zoo
The animals on the cover image of this movie make it seem Doctor Dolittle-esque, but this is a funny, heartbreaking story about a widower and his kids, trying to grieve and heal and move on. I’d personally watch Matt Damon do laundry, so seeing him play a Dad trying his best at taking care of wild animals and, even harder, a troubled teenage son, is pretty darn engaging.
It’s unpredictable and funny and heart-wrenching, but in a good way. Scarlett Johansson plays the obvious love interest realistically, and Thomas Haden Church provides comic relief when it gets a little sad. Mostly, it’s not a sad movie, it’s just a movie about a family trying something out of the box so they don’tget too sad, and fighting for it when they have to.
Without being heavy-handed, it paints a beautiful picture of what a family can be.
And speaking of Matt Damon, in this movie, based on a self-published manuscript, we get to see him grow potatoes in space while fighting for his life and making jokes. Most people know the premise of this one or have already seen it, but it bears watching with teens because it tackles loyalty, ethics, and survival; it’s science fiction but realistic, even a little playful. Some viewers might not be able to get through the nearly opening scene where Damon must pull shrapnel out of his chest, but he tempers that and everything he does with humor, even the Cast Away-like scenes of loneliness.
There are no aliens or computers trying to kill him, so even non-sci-fi fans will enjoy the plot.
Some runner-ups, not chosen for this list because of language, violence/death, or the OSS, are: A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Good Will Hunting, Castaway, and Interstellar.
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Paige Johnson is a mom of four teenagers (middle school through college) from Alexandria, Virginia. When she’s not doing laundry or cooking, she’s a writer, teacher and professional singer in the DC area. Paige has a BA from James Madison University and an MA in literature from George Mason, and has spent time working and being a SAHM, including that one crazy year where she homeschooled. You can find her at http://paigespace.com/