Want to Be a Better Person? Watch a Good Movie.

I’ve long believed that reading widely can make you a better person. My grandmother was right: reading a variety of things makes you interesting and exposes you to ideas and topics you might not otherwise know anything about.

Then I realized that reading also builds empathy. A good book allows you to step into another world, to experience people and places and situations foreign to your own day-to-day life.

After viewing a few great films this year that opened my eyes to worlds completely different from my own, I realized that movies do the same thing.  It’s the power of narrative and the character development that matter most.  So here are a few of the excellent films I’ve seen this past year that have increased my empathy for teen moms, ex-cons, and women in arranged marriages.


If you can’t fathom why a girl would even consider an arranged marriage in 2011 America, try Arranged–a film so realistic it’s been repeatedly described as a documentary.  (It’s not.)  My husband and I both loved this indie drama about two girls–one Jewish, one Muslim–who bond over their similar experiences as they each work with their parents to arrange their marriages.


Winter’s Bone plunged me into a dark and foreign world marked by codes of silence, as I watched the tough 17-year-old heroine desperately hunt for her missing drug-dealing  father in the Missouri Ozarks.  I was fascinated by the rural culture with its poverty, codes of silence, conspiratorial webs and female gatekeepers.  (Star Jennifer Lawrence grew up down the road from me.  I remember chatting with her mom just a few years ago on my parent’s porch, as she told me how she and her husband were splitting time between home and L.A., taking turns staying with Jennifer as she looked for work.  It didn’t sound like a good bet to me.  Needless to say, I was wrong.)

The Lives of Others

The setting:  East Berlin, 1984.  A Stasi officer is issued his next assignment:  to oversee surveilance on a citizen who’s been labeled a possible enemy of the state.  But as the months go by, and the officer listens in on his target’s life through the surveillance wires, his sympathies shift, and he begins to hope and scheme that all will turn out well for this marked man.  Riveting.


I’ve Loved You So Long

The film begins with Juliette (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) being released from prison after serving a 15 year sentence.  She moves in with her younger sister and slowly acclimates to her new life–and the viewer slowly begins to understand her history.  This is a sad, poignant film–with moments of laugh-out-loud humor.



With its stylized dialogue and snarky tone, Juno would never be mistaken for a documentary.  But this story of a pregnant teen sneaks up on you.  This isn’t a movie about Teen Pregnancy; it’s a movie about one teenaged girl who gets pregnant, and what happens next.



Do you enjoy movies that expose you to worlds entirely different from your own?  What are some of your favorites?

photo credit: flickr user fauxto_digit


Leave A Comment
  1. Amber @ neuronmommy.com says:

    I loved Juno. I didn’t want to see it for a long time because I thought it was glorifying teenage pregnancy. I was so wrong! I am glad I overcame my initial judgement (or, pre-judgement) and gave the movie a chance.

  2. “Arranged” looks interesting and I’ve heard really good reviews about “The Lives of Others”, but have not yet found the time to sit down and watch it. I saw “Juno” on a plane flight shortly after it came out and thought it was…interesting, but certainly not something I’d put on my “watch this again” list.

    I guess I’m a sucker for watching chick-flicks, like “Sabrina” (certainly counts as a world very different from my own), or any of the films based on Austen’s books. I’m not a huge documentary fan, but I was sucked into the film, “Waiting for Superman” about the education issues in the U.S. And I appreciate movies like “The Help” or “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” because I love the cultures that are represented – not that they are all good, but they are so different from my world.

    • Anne says:

      I’ve just finished a book about reforming America’s schools (Stephen Brill’s Class Warfare) and he references Waiting for Superman. Now I am dying to see the documentary!

  3. Katie says:

    I had mixed feeling about Juno. It is not one I would buy, or possibly even watch again, but I thought it was good to watch it once.

    I like Fiddler on the Roof. It is so awesome to see some of the Jewish traditions played out on the screen. Not to mention the incredible music.

  4. Laura says:

    “Juno” is the only film on your list that I have seen. I’m writing down the titles of the others and will look for them as well.
    You’re so right! A good book AND a good movie can change your life. Thanks for the suggestions.


  5. 'Becca says:

    I wrote about this phenomenon in books earlier this year. One of those books, The Color Purple, has an excellent film adaptation.

    One of my favorite movies for empathetic experience is 8 Mile, starring Eminem. I like only some of his rap and am pretty disgusted with some of the things he’s done in his personal life, but when I saw a trailer for the movie I felt strangely drawn to see it. It is so good that for days afterward, I imagined having conversations with his character and tried to see things the way he would.

    • Anne says:

      ‘Becca, thanks for the recommendation. That is just the type of movie that I would never dream of picking up unless someone nudged me strongly in that direction. Kind of like Winter’s Bone!

      • Amber says:

        I second the 8-Mile suggestion! I actually watched it on tv years ago while packing for a trip (not sure what all was edited out), but it’s very true that it’s a great movie and will have you thinking about–and relating to–that world. Also, the creativity involved in coming up with rap lyrics is pretty amazing, and that’s highlighted in the movie. I had a new appreciation for it afterwards.

  6. Lucky says:

    I loved the book Moneyball and I surprised myself by really liking the movie. It’s a baseball movie, but it’s also about an underdog and making the best out of what you have rather than trying to be someone else who has more than you. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a theatre in years, and it was even more fun because the audience was cheering for the baseball parts of the movie as if they were live games.

  7. Paula says:

    Juno is the only movie on your list that I’ve watched, and I really enjoyed it. 🙂 You’ve made me curious about Winter’s Bone. It sounds like I would be watching a movie made about my own home town, which could be very interesting or just disturbing. The Lives of Others also sounds really good. Thanks for the suggestions. 🙂

  8. Adriana says:

    Loved Arranged. I would definitely recommend it!

    Another really good film I’ve seen this year is Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story.
    Very inspiring.

    Freedom Writers would also be on my list of inspiring, empathy-inducing films.

    So to answer your question Anne ~ Yes, I love films that introduce me to a world different that my own! Thanks for the recommendations.

  9. Wendy says:

    In my past life (pre-mom) I was an actress in LA. Since then I have been consumed with mothering three little mens, and wife-ing (though not a real word I needed a verb here) one high energy husband. I’ve always loved stories, reading them, watching them… telling them. But it’s gotten lost amidst the needs that are so constant. Even as I write this I’m sitting on the floor of my five year old’s room (because of his night terrors) rather than watching the show I’d been looking forward to. Anyway, what a refreshing post. Thanks for sharing. I’m making a list and will enjoy some of your favorites from this year.


  10. Monica says:

    The only one of these I have seen is Juno, but I don’t actually remember very much of it! I do understand what you mean in regards to movies as well as books helping you to really feel and experience life the way others would. I’m jotting down the other titles you listed and will look into watching them. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Jessica says:

    What an eclectic list, I love it!

    I’ve seen both ‘Juno’ and ‘The Lives of Others,’ and enjoyed both.

    I can’t recommend ‘Lives of Others’ strongly enough! Talking to Germans who lived in East Germany during these years, I understand it’s a very accurate, and chilling, portrayal of life in a police state. As the movie progressed, I really began to empathize with the Stasi officer.

  12. Heather says:

    The only one I’ve seen here is Juno. I liked it and it increased my empathy for pregnant teens, but I was shocked at my cousins’ reaction to it (girls in their early and mid teens when they first saw it). To them, it glorified teenage pregnancy! They were a little too young to understand the film’s nuances, and their thinking was “Juno’s funny. I want to be like her. And if I get pregnant I’ll just goof off and everone will laugh, and then I’ll give the baby to someone else to raise, and then get back together with my boyfriend and we’ll start a quirky little band and live happily ever after and baby-free.” (Obviously the more unhappy and deep parts of the film were lost on them.) So I have to say it’s not something you want immature teens to watch!

  13. Katie says:

    Oooh, The Lives of Others came out when I was living in Germany. East Germans have very interesting stories of growing up/living during that time. It’s a powerful movie.

  14. DFrazzled says:

    I’d just like to say that I loved Apocolypto for the adventurous storyline and the culture that was beautifully portrayed–many sides of the culture were shown, making it very well rounded and allowing the viewer to connect in some way and probably learn something new. I suppose it’s an old movie now. I’m looking forward to some of these too.

  15. Melissa says:

    Have any of you ever watched “Splendor in the Grass”? I had seen it years ago, and remembered thinking how sad it was…and it was on the OETA movie club (in Tulsa, our PBS station) and I watched it again, now, at 46. Wondered about your thoughts? The host of the movie club said it was in his top 5 movies of all time. It is very powerful…seems along the same lines of the storyline of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”…the main characters in this wish they could erase the memories of each other, I’ll bet. Plus, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood are just gorgeous. Maybe some of you can watch it this weekend and let me know what you think?

  16. Cathy Armour says:

    Three recent favorites:

    Slumdog Millionaire (okay – not that recent). My husband did a two week mission trip to India and I just found it a fascinating story.

    Hank & Asha – beautiful Indie film – now on Hulu. Story of two filmmakers who “meet” via video messages though they live across the world from each other. Wonderfully charming film.

    Blood Brothers – independent documentary about Rocky Braat – visiting India and stumbled upon an AIDS orphanage — and now he’s immersed in caring for the AIDS orphans of India.

    Thanks for post — I’m working late tonight and will try to find a few of these while I work!

  17. Ann says:

    Another great post, Anne. You always keep things fresh and interesting. I have a long list of books, movies, websites, etc. thanks to you. Thank you!

  18. I like the links to previous posts on your newest ones, and glad I read this today. I haven’t found anyone else who loved I’ve Loved You So Long, and glad it made your list. I loved everything about it—the brave pain the sister wore, and the lovely French house itself as well. Here’s a sweet story that came out of my recommending it to my mother, who passed away in 2012. Over the phone, I gave her the title and said I thought she’d really enjoy it. She wrote the title on a scrap of paper nearby, and my father came across it later that day, and thinking it was a note from her to him, underneath he wrote, “And I you.”

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