Many people think that media exists to entertain first and foremost. Arguably, the most intentional and persuasive projects accomplish this purpose while also inspiring an audience to reframe their line of reasoning or perspective, even if momentarily or slightly. Some of the most cherished films evoke feelings of hope and prompt viewers to treat others with fundamental respect and basic human decency in a myriad of ways. Great art has contagious empathy.
Kindness is an attribute ostensibly idolized by many, practiced by some, and appreciated by a few. Throughout the history of cinema, films across various genres with overlapping audiences have emphasized the importance of compassion in its various forms and flavors. With varying degrees of success, these films are defined by their sincere approach to embracing mercy, benevolence and sympathy.
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time, based on the beloved book of the same name, Storm Reid (Missing, Euphoria) joins Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling in an extraordinary adventure across space and time. The film focuses on Meg Murry and her adoptive brother Charles Wallace. With both children being adopted by an eccentric, yet loving couple, the two have formed a remarkably strong bond. However, that does not prevent them from being bullied by their peers in school.
Following the disappearance of her adoptive father (Chris Pine), Meg and Charles Wallace are visited by three primordial women: Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which. Promising to assist them, the trio joins the siblings and Meg’s schoolfriend Calvin in a quest across the universe. While on various planets, Meg comes to learn the various situations her peers endure. Instances of abuse, body-shaming, and neglect allow both Meg and the audience to consider the enabling factors of bullying during childhood.
While doing so, the film does not introduce these situations as a means to excuse the bullying but instead provides necessary context. Through the juxtaposition of Calvin and Meg’s bully Veronica, A Wrinkle in Time combats the popular myth that every act of malice stems from unaddressed trauma.
Although the film debuted to mixed reviews and was considered a disappointment to some, Reid’s portrayal was cherished by film critic is and consumers alike. A Wrinkle in Time may not live up to the standards set by its literary predecessor however the film provides audiences with a hopeful adventure that embraces empathy.
Dead Man Walking
Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon star in the recreation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book of the same name. Documenting the final days of convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet, viewers see a persistent Prejean prompt Poncelet to reconsider his upbringing, his perspective on race, sex, and poverty, as well as his history of violence. In her journey, she comes across the prison guards, the parents of the deceased, as well as Matthew’s kin.
One of the most popular films to question the death penalty, Dead Man Walking does not shy away form interrogating the effectiveness of the controversial subject. Sarandon’s character echoes the same beliefs found in Sister Prejean’s book, proclaiming that redemption could not be achieved without the perpetrator coming to truly understand the ramifications of their actions and takes responsibility.
Contrary to initial worries, the film does not pacify Poncelet but instead begs the question of what justice truly looks like. In a world where the death penalty is considered a viable solution to crime, this film joins other forms of media, studies, and cases in a concentrated effort to detail the faulty line of reason upholding the death penalty.
It may not come as a shock to some that Inside Out would find itself attached to other films about empathy. The 2015 animated film continues a long-lasting tradition shared between Disney and Pixar. Much of their projects have examined empathy, kindness, and love in a manner best suited for age appropriate audiences. Inside Out, however, immerses audiences inside the minds of our protagonist and explicitly explores the difficulties of maturity, migration, and subsequently, adapting to new environments. It’s one of Pixar’s best movies.
With a cast including Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, and Lewis Black, the film follows Riley, a middle schooler whose family recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Feeling isolated following the life-changing decision, Riley understandably acts out. Rather than simply telling audiences about Riley’s conflicting emotions, the film introduces personified emotions that help interpret and moderate Riley’s behavior. Viewers get an inside look at how children confront complex but fundamentally normal emotions.
Inside Out‘s characters are like a council, Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust assemble and embark on an adventure to help alleviate Riley’s issues. Through a vein of comedy that mirrors that of a workplace sitcom, the themes of the film are digestible to all ages. While it helps children come to terms with their emotions, it also prompts parents to be conscious of their children as humans in their own right, and teaches us all that it’s okay to be sad.
Mickey and the Bear
Celebrated for its unique approach to the coming-of-age drama, Mickey and the Bear follows a dad-and-daughter duo in a sentimental piece that questions even the closest of relationships. Mickey (Camila Morrone) is an 18-year-old high school senior living with her father Henry (James Badge Dale) in a trailer. Following an exceptionally rare dinner, viewers learn of a particular point of contention between the pair. The passing of her late mother and her father’s PTSD from war play a vital role in Mickey’s adolescence.
Mickey’s life is a tale all too common in the world. The film masterfully tackles the unique spot children find themselves in when caring for aching parents. There is an intentional acknowledgment that Henry’s PTSD and subsequent addiction is not his fault. The ramifications of the Iraq War and the loss of his wife have understandably broken him. Nevertheless, the movie chronicles the complicated combination of guilt, resent, and exhaustion that Mickey experiences.
Morrone shines in this tender film, which prompts audiences to consider, how much energy should people be expected to pour into the people they love? At what point does it become futile to continue preserving a fractured relationship? Instead of playing into existing, predictable dichotomies, the film is an earnest evaluation of a very real experience hidden behind closed doors.
Happy Old Year
One of the most interesting, yet overlooked moments in a single lifetime comes immediately after the dissolution of important relationships. Movies surrounding breakups captures the initial heartbreak, feelings of betrayal and rage, and the highly-anticipated resolution to the tension. Happy Old Year hones in on the process of moving on from a significant relationship.
Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying stars as Jean, a successful architect who returns to her native Bangkok after spending the last three years in Sweden. Once she begins going through her cluttered home, she stumbles upon several items that previously belonged to her ex-boyfriend, Aim (Sunny Suwanmethanont). At a glance, the film seems like a regular journey through distant memories. However, the characters wallow in the awkwardness that arises after Jean’s return. While Jean is submerged in embarrassment and despair, the film’s ethos rises to the surface.
Instead of discarding the relationships attached with the items like Jean suggests early on in the film, Happy Old Year asks its audiences to reconsider. Rather, the movie suggests confronting one’s past as a remedy to suffering. Considering the entirety of Aim and his various complexities allows Jean to process her honest feelings about the break-up. The outcome is messy, upsetting but ultimately cathartic. In coming to terms with the break-up, Jean lends grace to Aim and to herself in the process.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Mr. Rogers is often lauded by even the most pessimistic people as a beacon of kindness. Almost two decades after his passing, director Marielle Heller directed and premiered a heartfelt homage to everyone’s television uncle. Fred Rogers’ ubiquitous reign in American media continues to be respected, as the figure was noted for his sweet, bright demeanor. Starring as the beloved personality, Tom Hanks exudes warmth and light throughout A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
We’re introduced to Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical reporter who is determined to expose Rogers as a fraud. In his relentless pursuit of a perceived fraud, Lloyd comes into contact with the icon. That singular moment leads to an extraordinary epiphany that sees Lloyd and the audience witness the true magic of Fred Rogers.
Through her idiosyncratic direction, Heller highlights key moments in Rogers’ career, revisits iconic phrases, and holds affectionate and relevant conversations about life, emotions, and personal connections. By immersing viewers into the film and holding them in the same regard as Lloyd, the importance of camaraderie and kindness strongly resonates with an audience in search of genuine compassion.
The meticulously detailed After Yang imagines a future where robots are members of the nuclear family. The titular character is one of those robots, bought by a married couple from resellers known as the “Second Siblings.” Based on the novel “Saying Goodbye To Yang” by Alexander Weinstein, the franchise illustrates poignant conclusions about themes including grief and answers questions regarding what loss looks like from different perspectives, the meaning of humanity, and what is the true definition of family.
The film introduces Yang (Justin H. Min) as one of four in a close-knit family unit alongside Jake (Colin Ferrell), Kyra (Jodie Turner), and their adoptive daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). After Yang effectively shuts down, Jake attempts to repair Yang. Jake’s errands soon transform into a remarkable discovery, and one of the best movies of 2022.
The film takes a topic as controversial as technological advancement and paints it with a brush of tenderness and compassion. Yang himself is treated as the complex, sentient being he is, rather than a prop for the family and audiences to learn from. Yang’s existence is a life fulfilled. It is his memories and the legacy he leaves behind that ultimately prompts Jake to reconsider his beliefs on the meaning of life for the better.
Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
Following a family of Chinese immigrants, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once centers around the Wang family, more specifically the matriarch, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh). As the manager of the family laundromat, Evelyn finds herself drowning in endless responsibilities after news of an IRS approved audit. In the midst of stressful situations. Evelyn also contends with preparing for her father’s arrival, her dissolving marriage to the typically optimistic Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), as well as her adversarial relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
From the creative minds of The Daniels, the themes baked into Everything, Everywhere All at Once complements the genre-bending nature of the film. Generational trauma, existentialism, mental health, nihilism, and immigration are some of the many themes the film expertly tackles. Initially introduced as a film documenting a dysfunctional family, the plot takes the audience and characters a like on a mind-spinning, yet fulfilling adventure.
In searching for an answer to a common, yet fundamental question, Evelyn’s adventures emphasize the hyperbolic yet authentic feeling that many have experienced when going through possible displacement, ostracization, and consequently, traumatization.
The film also examines the morality of each character. Presenting each character at their most joyful, vulnerable, resentful, and confused moments, the film highlights how a hero in one perspective can be deemed villainous in another. Something as innocent as crafting a desired future for one’s family could further propagate existing, toxic cycles across generations. In collectively stepping back, cherishing the limited time-shared with loved ones, and appreciating the beautiful complexities of one’s community, life’s troubles suddenly seem possible to overcome.