When my daughter was 12, her godmother treated her to regular movie nights, featuring films that had been important to her growing up.
Some of the films depicted values Annie’s godmother wanted to pass on to her, like the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, which explores racism and injustice in the Deep South. Others were pure entertainment, like the wonderful 1950s musical An American in Paris with its incredible fantasy dance sequences.
“Watching movies is a wonderful way for us to share a part of our own history with our kids — the stuff we loved when we were growing up,” says Cathy Wing, who is co-executive director of the Media Awareness Network in Ottawa, and the mother of two grown children. She and her husband, both film school graduates, watched a lot of movies with their kids — everything from The Elephant Man to Bringing Up Baby. “What you’re doing is promoting the best in movies,” says Wing, and the range you’ve got to choose from is incredible. “You’re looking for ones they won’t necessarily be watching at sleepovers.”
Films can be a rich source of life lessons. Sherry Coman is a film critic, story editor and former teacher of screenwriting at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Toronto. “There are wonderful films, often featuring kids in challenging situations where positive values and ethics are generated,” says Coman. Rabbit-Proof Fence is one of her top movie picks for this age group. It’s a film that can lead to all kinds of conversations about everything from the treatment of aboriginal peoples to the way in which the three main characters face trials and obstacles, and have to solve problems.
It’s not surprising that kids this age, who are exploring identity and independence, respond to coming-of-age stories like the classic Stand by Me where four young boys set off to find a rumoured dead body, or Ever After, a feminist retelling of the Cinderella story. From films like these, kids can learn that mistakes are a part of life,” says Coman. “Whether the hero succeeds or fails is not as important as the journey of self that happens along the way.”
Sometimes exploring a theme or a genre will keep kids engaged in sharing movies with you. If you’re a fan of the classic western, for example, you can show your child your favourite John Wayne pic and talk about why you love it so much. If your preteen loves dance and was captivated by Billy Elliot, dust off the 1980 version of Fame, the story of eight dance hopefuls in New York’s High School of Performing Arts, or reach back even further for Singin’ in the Rain and marvel at Gene Kelly’s fancy footwork.
If your child is heading off to high school, you might watch Sidney Poitier tame a rebellious class in To Sir, With Love or weep along with what is, according to Coman, possibly the best film ever made about the high school coming-of-age experience, Dead Poets Society.
Whether it’s a classic film that made an impression on you or a madcap bit of escapism, remember the point is to have fun. Wing says her family loved The Producers and anything by Monty Python.
In The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son, Toronto film critic David Gilmour wrote about allowing his son to drop out of high school on the condition he watch three films a week with him. Of course, this is an extreme case, but in an interview, Gilmour captured what movies allowed him to do: “To spend time with a teenaged boy at a time when teenagers are essentially closing the door on you and easing you out of their lives.”
Whether the movies are your picks or your child’s, they can be just the thing when you’re at loggerheads and, hopefully the conversation that follows will help you understand each other. So make the popcorn, find your place on the couch, and enjoy.