A great film can evoke the best in us. It can change the way we see the world, each other, and even give us creative ways out of circumstances we thought were insurmountable. But can a film literally save someone’s life?
In the coming year, ten million Americans will ponder taking their own life. More than five Americans will intentionally kill themselves in the coming hour. That adds up to 130 people per day; 3,900 per month; 47,000 per year; nearly half a million in the coming decade. We are living in the middle of a culture of suicide.
As a lifelong film fan—as well as a physician and a pastor—I believe what we put into our heads (films, books, art, beauty) can have a colossal impact on what comes out of our lives on earth. Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul made a similar claim in his letter to the people of Philippi (see Philippians 4:8). Below, I’ve selected five films from various time periods that offer hope to those among us who are struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Mully is the true story of what happens when God gets ahold of one of us and we stop fighting him. It is the most inspiring documentary I have ever seen. Period.
The film is set in Kenya. It details Charles Mully’s life from the time he was abandoned by his family as a six-year-old through his early struggles, meeting his wife Esther, starting his taxi (matatu) business, the growth of his business empire, as well as the growth of his biologic family.
Then the moment comes, as I think it does for all of us, when the Lord says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” That is the moment when Mully, like Saint Patrick and others before him, walked back to the life he had escaped to rescue those left behind.
I will not spoil the film for those of you who will watch it. To be sure, the film affected me additionally because my son and his family live in Kenya doing the same thing: rescuing little ones. This is their world and their battle too. I warn you: have several handkerchiefs ready as you watch.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
I often say that we don’t need more wonders in the world, just a greater sense of wonderment. This classic film is a timeless tale of wonderment lost and wonderment regained. I’ve always been a sucker for the underdog, so the fact that one of most magical films in Hollywood history was a box office and critical failure, not winning a single one of the five Oscars for which it was nominated, makes it all the more uplifting.
You are probably familiar with the story line: George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) wishes he had never been born, so God sends an endearing but bumbling angel to make George’s wish come true. As the story of George’s life rewinds, much darkness is exposed, but ultimately the message that every life matters and every life is precious shines through. Don’t wait until Christmas to watch (or rewatch); this is a movie that brightens any month of the year.
Inside Out (2015)
In general, I’m not a big fan of animated films (except for Studio Ghibli, especially Whisper of the Heart, Spirited Away, and Totoro), but Inside Out proves once and for all that animated films aren’t just for kids. Children love it, teens identify with it, and adults are challenged by it to ponder how emotions reveal why we do what we do.
The story follows 11-year-old Riley, who moves from Minnesota to San Francisco with her family and leaves all her favorite friends, foods, and fun times behind. Five characters, emotions with names, operate out of Riley’s control center: Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust. Perhaps more vividly than any self-help book, the movie depicts how emotions influence our perceptions, actions, and reactions—for Riley and for all of us.
As Christians, we know that God wants us to value what He values. What brings God joy should bring us joy. What disgusts God should disgust us. Yet in our world, all too often our emotional reactions reveal the opposite of the example set by Jesus.
Perhaps what I like most about this movie are the questions it raises:
- Do we control our emotions, or do our emotions control us?
- Is there value in our sadness as well as our joy?
- How do our emotions reveal our true desires—and do these desires concur or conflict with God’s?
Whether you watch with your spouse, child, or a group of friends, this movie is sure to spark conversations that help build shalom inside and out through healthy relationships.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Confession time: This is perhaps the grade B+ movie that I have watched more times than any other. I can’t get enough of this movie, and the real-life miracle is that my wife loves it as much as I do.
Phil (Bill Murray) is a cynical weatherman, sent out to cover the annual emergence of the groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Stuck in a blizzard that he didn’t predict, Phil finds himself trapped in a time warp, doomed (or gifted the chance) to relive the same day over and over again—until he gets it right.
As I write this, it occurs to me that Groundhog Day, It’s a Wonderful Life, and another of my all time favorites—About Time—all have to do with living outside of time—something that in reality only God does. Through the magic of movieland, we gain perspective on second and third chances for forgiveness, mercy, and grace.
The King’s Speech (2010)
The film I most identify with personally is The King’s Speech, the grade A+ movie I have given away more copies of than any other. Both a critical and box office success, The King’s Speech was nominated for 12 Oscars and subsequently won 4, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Colin Firth. Hailed for outstanding screenplay, direction, musical score, and acting, The King’s Speech meets all my qualifications for The Perfect Movie.
The story centers on England’s Prince Albert, who eventually becomes King George VI. Due to a childhood stammer, he consults Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist. The two become fast, albeit unlikely, friends. After George’s elder brother abdicates the throne, Logue helps prepare the new king to make his first wartime radio broadcast as Britain declares war on Germany.
Though I am a physician and pastor—not a king—I share George’s speech impediments. While in my forties, I became a Christian and left my job as an ER doctor to pursue God. Very quickly, that journey required me to speak in front of crowds, first at small churches and later to audiences of thousands and tens of thousands. For the first few years, I stammered and broke out into hives every time I spoke in public. And although I have spoken at more than a thousand churches, colleges, and events over the last two decades, to this day my wife can instantly tell how nervous I am after a speech by feeling how cold my hands are.
While not everyone stutters, each of us has something to overcome. The King’s Speech reminds us that the best possible motivation for overcoming a personal deficiency is to serve God and people. For, and the saying goes, “God doesn’t call the equipped—he equips the called.”
*Caveat: After recommending The King’s Speech to a new church friend, my wife gently reminded me, “Matthew, don’t forget: there’s a ton of swearing.” Truthfully, I didn’t remember until Nancy reminded me, but she’s right. Cursing is integral to the historicity of the story, so choose your viewing partners with care.
To request a list of other uplifting films, email [email protected].
Dr. Matthew Sleeth, the executive director of Blessed Earth, was recognized by Newsweek as one of the nation’s most influential Christian leaders. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life In a Culture of Suicide. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, RELEVANT magazine, CNN, and Christianity Today.