Graduation Advice from an Elder Millennial

I graduated college in 2005. That means by the time I was a senior I had already experienced the Columbine school shooting as a high schooler, 9/11 as a freshman in college, and one of my brothers was killed right before my 22nd birthday while serving in Iraq. I limped out of college into my first job, after three years of which I felt called into grad school and campus ministry. So I started a new job working for the CCO, which meant fundraising my salary, in the summer of 2008. That’s right, I entered a career that depended on raising financial support and then the market immediately crashed.  Not the rosy future I had envisioned for myself.

We always ask graduating seniors “do you know what you’re doing next?” We assume that they should know the answer and we rarely warn them that one’s early-mid 20s are often extremely tumultuous and unpredictable. That is only heightened for those who are graduating this year in the midst of a global pandemic and likely recession. As someone who can relate, here is what helped me survive and grow in challenging times.

Say yes to random opportunities

I had an entry-level job in Student Affairs after I graduated. It did not pay a lot, it was not glamorous, and I could have done the minimum requirements for it. But whenever additional opportunities came along, I took them. I volunteered as a faculty/staff advisor for the women’s club rugby team. I attended our annual professional conference and the second year presented a workshop on supporting students in trauma. I collaborated with other offices across campus to offer campus-wide events. When my church gave me opportunities to lead and serve, I jumped in. When a friend and coworker invited me to the CCO’s annual Jubilee Conference, I said yes. All of these experiences helped me grow personally and professionally, made me more competitive for grad schools, and eventually led to my next step. Whatever job you get, even if it does not seem impressive, make the most out of it. And if you cannot find a job, look for involvements in your community. The need for service and support is significant right now. Invest in your area and you never know what networks and connections you will make in the process.

Invest in a church family

I was an emotional wreck after college. I was processing the trauma of losing my brother, I was trying to adjust to a new town and new job, I was lonely and depressed. I bounced around to different churches for about a year, and then landed at a small Anglican church plant nearby. That church became my home for the next 7 years. They invited me to join the leadership team after a year. I did not know how to help lead a church plant but I was committed so I said yes. I had the chance to be a lay delegate multiple times at our annual church network conference. It meant sitting through a long day of Robert’s Rules and not understanding half of what was going on, but it shaped me to see myself as an active agent in my local congregation and in our global denomination. Beyond interesting leadership experiences, the church gave me a family. We were in a small college town which means I had very few peers to hang out with, but I had older couples that took an interest in me, and young families that invited me over. I did not have many other young professional friends but I was far from alone. Those people loved me and supported me and cheered me on during an otherwise untethered season in my life. It can be hard to find a church. It takes time to build relationships and to open up. But it is the best investment you will make.

Cultivate your mental/emotional health

I think a lot of us feel like a train wreck after college. Whether you go to college or not, our 20’s are a time when we are working through family dynamics and past hurt. We are continuing to discern who we are and what we are supposed to do next. It is often a lonely time with a lot of transition in friendships and community. And it is a time to lay a healthy foundation that we can build on for the rest of our lives. Investing in our mental/emotional health during this season is an investment in a stable future. It will be stressful at first. To face past trauma, to confront unhealthy patterns, to address areas of sin/idolatry in our hearts is never easy or quick. But ignoring those struggles does not mean they go away; it only means their presence in our lives is prolonged. Now is the time to grit your teeth and go to counseling. Find a mentor who can encourage and guide you. Meet regularly with a pastor or trusted spiritual guide. That may have to be online for the foreseeable future, but do not let that stop you. It will get so much better and getting to a place of greater inner stability is invaluable.

Ask for and accept help

I had no idea what I was doing in my 20’s, and that is ok. I think actually most people have no idea what they are doing most of the time. I had SO many people that gave me needed advice, who answered my ignorant questions, who shared their life experience, who were patient with me. There is no shame in needing help and needing to ask questions. Some of my most frequent advice for anyone starting a new job is to ask lots of questions. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of proactivity. Do not let embarrassment of pride get in the way of allowing others to walk with you and give you any support that you need.

Be patient with yourself and the process

When we graduate we think everyone is expecting us to have it all together and find our one true path that we will pursue forever. Especially in our age of technology where we see our peers with viral YouTube channels, or creating apps, or being social media influencers, we think we have to be an immediate success when we are young. But Maya Angelou was 41 when she wrote her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Betty Friedan was 42 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. C. S. Lewis was 52 when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published. Jesus was 30 when He started His public ministry. Do not compare yourself and your timing to everyone else. You are not “behind” where you think you are supposed to be. Focus on being faithful to each opportunity and each relationship in front of you.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” (Luke 16:10)

This is not a time when you have to achieve huge success, this is a perfect time to learn faithfulness in small things. And that foundation of small-scale faithfulness, small-scale trustworthiness, will eventually be honored by the Lord in increasingly impactful ways. Be patient, stay faithful, stay hopeful. As a wise friend of mine told me, “The way we make decisions in current circumstances is how we are likely to make decisions in the future. A ‘yes’ to God today increases the likelihood of a ‘yes’ to God tomorrow.” Say yes to God today, and trust that He will provide the next yes and the ones after that.

How to Respond to the Coronavirus if You are Young and Healthy

To be honest, I was dismissive of the initial reaction to the coronavirus in the US. I thought cancelling the NCAA tournament and other gatherings was an overreaction. Hearing about the relatively mild symptoms of the virus made me think it was not that big of a deal. I figured that if I got sick I could recover quickly so why all the panic? But after spending more time reading about how the virus impacts people who are much more vulnerable than me and guidance from people I respect like Andy Crouch (Love in the Time of Coronavirus) and Esau McCaulley (The Christian Response to the Coronavirus: Stay Home) I had to change my outlook. If you are also a low-risk person wondering what your role should be, here are some things to consider:

It is not about you

Take health precautions seriously because it is not just about your health. It is about keeping vulnerable people safe who could be seriously harmed if we passed the virus to them. Be thinking about the elderly in your community, or those who are going through cancer treatment, or those who are pregnant and have longed for a child for years, or people who appear healthy to you but may have health concerns you know nothing about. Remember that all of these people could experience life-threatening illness through the carelessness of the healthy. Now is the time to put their concerns ahead of your own and make decisions with them in mind.

Practice everything we are being told to do

There are a lot of great memes about social distancing, but it is more than an introvert’s time to shine. The more we are in public and in groups that are not necessary, the higher the risk of spreading the virus. This could mean cancelling plans or events that you have worked hard to prepare. I am a campus minister and right now my students are all home with extra time on their hands. I have to fight the urge to gather them because it might be fruitful for us but could be detrimental to someone else. The wise thing to do is model staying home even when we could go out. When you are going out for necessities, be vigilant about hand washing and disinfecting throughout your time in public and as soon as you get home. These are not habits of germophobes, these are life-saving measures.

Consider how your health can be a blessing to others

Being a low-risk population is not something to take for granted, but a gift that can be offered back for the common good. Can you run errands for someone who is home bound? Reach out to elderly/high-risk relatives, neighbors and people in your community. They may desperately need someone to get them groceries, get their mail or buy stamps, or pick up their prescriptions. Then make sure to disinfect your hands before dropping those things off! Also consider who in your community might need childcare when school is cancelled but the parent(s) cannot stay home, especially if they are in the medical field. If you are a student or have a flexible schedule, you may be able to help a parent remain employed and keep their family stable.

Reach out to each other

Social distancing can be relaxing and fun for some, for others it will be deeply stressful and lonely. Be intentional with your community and proactive to communicate with others, especially with anyone living alone. Prioritize messaging and video chatting with anyone you know may be struggling. Isolation can inflame anxiety and depression; we need caring human contact to stay healthy. Physical health is not the only form of wellbeing at stake, stay connected and be an initiator for your loved ones.

Embrace Godly concern

It is tempting to go to extremes of either dismissiveness or panic. Trust God in what we cannot control (which is most of it) and honor God in what we can do. Our call is to love and serve our neighbors. Not in a spirit of fear or anxiety, but of selflessness and compassion. Be rooted in scripture and let God’s Word be your guide:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13

The Church has a unique opportunity to demonstrate peace and sacrificial love during this season. Do not miss this opportunity to serve with humility, put the interests of others ahead of our own, care for each other in creative ways, and glorify God in the ways we respond. Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

 

 

Wondering what to do for Lent?

Some of us have grown up in churches where Lent was an annual practice and a core part of our worship and rhythm of our year. Many of us are hearing about Lent for the first time or are familiar with it but have never engaged with it in an intentional way. Wherever you find yourself, I believe that Lent can be a vibrant time of spiritual growth, repentance and soul-searching, discipline and focus.

What is Lent?

This is a practice that the Church has been observing for centuries. It is meant to mirror the experience of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, preparing for His earthly ministry and ultimate sacrifice. It is a time to seek the presence of Christ in intentional ways in preparation for Easter. It can be a spiritually rigorous and intense experience at times, but one that is meant to make the joy of the resurrection that much sweeter and triumphant! You can read more about the themes of Lent here.

How do I decide what to do during these 40 days?

Before you choose a specific practice, start by reflecting on what’s going on in your life recently. Do you have a big decision or new chapter coming up? Are there unresolved emotional wounds in your life that you’ve been avoiding dealing with? Is there a fractured relationship that you want to mend but don’t see a way forward? Are you wrestling with habitual sin? Have you struggled with consistency in your pursuit of Bible reading and prayer? Are you feeling distracted and distant from others? Determine what you are feeling most urgently and where you need to invite the work of the Holy Spirit to join with you.

From there, consider adding something positive into your routine and/or taking something away. The goal of a Lenten fast is not to be perfect and to “do better” as a Christian. The goal is to insert disruption into your normal routine in a way that will allow Christ to be more at work within you. By shifting your habits and schedule, you can more readily make room for Jesus in new ways. With that goal in mind, here are some practices to consider:

Prayer focus

Particularly if you are anticipating a decision and new chapter, wrestling with unhealed emotional pain in your life, or habitual sin you can’t conquer, this may be a good place to start. Make the decision to pray about these things regularly and open your heart to God’s working in those areas. This will need to be marked by willingness to then actually let God lead and move! It is ok if you are hesitant and scared at first. It is ok if you have to start slowly in opening up to God about what you are really dealing with. It is ok if it is deeply unsettling and you feel vulnerable and exposed. Be brutally honest in prayer, don’t think you need to give God polished prayers of what you think He wants to hear. Be open about what scares you in this process, where you’re wrestling with distrust, where you don’t want to let Him in, where you’d rather keep hiding or relying on yourself. The more you are honest with God, the more you’ll allow Him to meet you in authentic ways. There will be days where you want to shut down and give up, keep your eyes on our hope of the resurrection and the promise that Jesus makes all things new!

Food or device fast

Last year my husband and I fasted from gluten and dairy. That is the most extreme fast I have ever done, and it is not necessary to do something like this every year. It definitely disrupted our normal habits very extensively and just the act of doing something different as a gesture of faith was very impactful. You can consider fasting from one form of food such as sugar, soda, caffeine, chocolate, meat, etc. If you give up a food, try to use it as reminders to pray and seek the Lord throughout your day. When you are tempted to consume the thing you have given up, turn to prayer and invite the Spirit to help you and work in your mind and heart. Remind yourself that you are empty apart from Christ and that you need the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to sustain you and truly satisfy you. If you are struggling with feeling like your life is chaotic and unfocused, something simple like this could be a good choice to bring focus and discipline into your days.

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Many people choose to fast from their devices in some form. This could mean being off social media, being off one specific platform, limiting the time of day you are using devices, setting your phone to grayscale to curtail it’s impact on you, etc. Perhaps you are always playing music on Spotify or other streaming.  You may need to close those apps for set times of the day and be in silence with your thoughts and allowing Christ to be with you in the stillness. One suggestion would be to adopt the practice of “scripture before screen”, reading your Bible before you open your phone. It could also include putting your phone away during meals and when you are with others. If you are dealing with feelings of disconnection and anxiety, this might be a good option for you.

Introduce a positive new habit

I will ALWAYS recommend spending more time in God’s Word. Set a goal of being in your Bible/Bible app every day. Pick a book of the Bible that you want to gradually work through and start simple with one chapter a day. Find a friend who wants to do the same so you can encourage each other. The more you are immersed in the scriptures, the more you will know God and recognize His guidance and wisdom in your life. If you’re wanting to grow closer to God during Lent, Bible reading is an excellent strategy.

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You can also make intentional time for reading other books you know will be encouraging and formative. Maybe it’s being disciplined to attend Sunday worship and Bible study/small group every week. Think about opportunities you have that you know will help you learn and grow but that you have a hard time doing consistently. Lent is a great time to make them a priority and to give the Lord your time and focus in a new and sacrificial way.

Don’t give up

It is very likely that you will not be perfect at your fast. If you slip up and forget something or slip into an old behavior, don’t give up! Keep going even if you make mistakes. The Lord desires our hearts not our perfect behavior. If your heart is wanting to pursue Christ during Lent, God will receive that and meet you in ways you might not expect. Take this step of faith and obedience, keep going, and have an open heart before the Lord to see how He wants to reveal Himself to you along the way.

Taylor Swift and the struggles of white repentance

“My entire moral code has been based on the need to be perceived as good.”

So says Taylor Swift in the recent Netflix documentary about her career and the recording process of her latest album, Lover. The doc weaves in footage of her early career, but focuses primarily on her reflections of what shaped her as a young artist, and how she has been driven ever since. Swift has a remarkable and unparalleled career. Starting out as a 14-year-old in Nashville, she has always been in the public eye and grew up with her entire personhood on display. She has always written her own songs, and has logged 7 chart-topping studio albums, an unusual sustained success for any artist. Swift was coming of age along with her fans and leveraged social media in a way that was ground-breaking at the time, giving fans glimpses into her personal life and making them feel like they were her friends. A major part of her persona has been her accessibility and transparency, bringing herself into her songwriting and into her connections with fans. But that has come at a cost.

Swift is exceptionally successful but largely because she is a perfectionist who struggles with anxiety, disordered eating, loneliness, and the belief that to be good one must be flawless. To be in the public eye means to be criticized, and Swift internalized negative feedback into believing that if she tried harder and became better, she would find the acceptance and approval she longed for. She talks candidly about the performance treadmill she was perpetually on, trying to conform to what others wanted her to be so that she could finally feel that she was enough.

In the past two years she has tried to confront the constraints she was allowing to be placed upon her. That has included becoming more politically active around causes she cares about and speaking out about sexual harassment and assault. In the doc we watch her share a public Instagram post about the 2018 mid-term Senate race in Tennessee (her home state), which was a major risk for her. The moment when she hits “share” on her Instagram account is one of deep anxiety and dread, knowing what would come next. She received intense backlash as well as death threats and the potential for physical harm.

These themes are where Miss Americana turns from being about Taylor Swift specifically to being about what it means to be a young woman in society. Speaking for young white women at least, we are socialized to be agreeable and approval-seeking. To accommodate the needs and comfort of others regardless of what we are experiencing. To conform to the expectations of others, particularly men, and not be contentious or opinionated. We are taught that we should strive for perfection. Perfection in attaining impossible body and beauty ideals, and perfection in our studies and careers. We should not attempt something unless we know we can complete it with excellence and are wracked with shame and embarrassment over every perceived failure. If the ideal is to be “good”, then anything that makes us feel “bad” is to be avoided at all costs.

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I believe these dynamics have contributed significantly to white feminism’s failure to partner authentically with women of color. It should be named first that in various stages of the women’s movement, women of color have intentionally been excluded for no other reason than prejudice and selfishness. That needs to be named and contended with, along with multiple other factors. For now, and in this area, I think the way white women are socialized is blocking our current ability to move forward in a healthier and more equitable way. Because to join with women of color has to start with admitting failure and flaws. It has to involve pressing into the ways that we have lived in blindness and being willing to make mistakes as we move towards understanding. We have to admit that we are not perfect, and from there we have to take risks that will make some angry and offended.

I had to wrestle with this firsthand when I moved to Memphis, TN three years ago from the Northeast. Before moving I would have described myself as concerned about racial reconciliation and issues of justice. I had a strong Biblical conviction that God is concerned with the poor and marginalized, and that as Christians we are called to enter into those same concerns. But it wasn’t until I came to the Deep South that all my blindness and selfishness and disbelief were exposed. I had no idea the extent to which racism has corrupted our society, and my unintentional role in perpetuating it. And as a result, I spent the first year in this new city in a perpetual state of anxiety. Every day I was realizing new things about the on-going impact of systemic racism, and every day I felt like a failure and a “bad” person. As a white woman, that triggered all my defensiveness and instinctive need to preserve my identity as a “good” person and to downplay and dismiss and withdraw. There was an intense war waging within me, one that could have easily derailed me and prompted me to give up.

That is a war we will all have to face if we are serious about addressing the failures and exclusions of white feminism. Because the truth is, we have failed, and we have been doing it wrong. We have been staying in what is comfortable and known. We have taken some genuine risks to address toxic patterns in society but have stopped short of acknowledging where we have contributed to patterns of systemic inequality. We have kept others at a distance in order to prevent confronting things that could make us feel inadequate. And that has kept us prisoners to fear, anxiety, and lies. We are more concerned with being perceived as good than we are about doing what is right.

If we are to move forward, we need to cling to Jesus who promises that the truth sets us free. Who promises that He is not surprised by our sin and failure, but offers us mercy and forgiveness. Who gives us the Holy Spirit to rewire and change us from the inside out. In my journey of contending with racism, the Lord was able to work out more than my prejudice and biases. I was finally giving God room to deal with my idols of approval and perfection, and finding freedom in embracing my weakness in order to step into humility and equity. I have been profoundly blessed and changed by Memphis, and Jesus has used this place to disciple me and transform me. That would never have happened if I had not made my peace with being imperfect. It is time for us to seek the Spirit’s help in releasing our need to be perfect and repent at the foot of the cross, knowing that renewal and hope are waiting for us.

 

Resources for next steps: If racial equity is something that you want to pursue more, here are two simple places to start.

  • Bryan Stevenson – This podcast interview with the lawyer and author of Just Mercy is a beautiful exposition on why it is important to still be talking about the history of race in America. Stevenson is a Christian and his faith is a clear motivator in the way he talks about racial healing with hope and purpose
  • White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White by Daniel Hill. From IVP, this is a faith-based discussion of white culture and seven stages to expect on your own path to cultural awakening.

 

Heather’s Top Ten Movies of 2019

This year I was drawn to movies that tried new things or told stories I hadn’t seen before. There ended up being multiple autobiographical films in the bunch, reflecting writers/directors going to places of vulnerability and authenticity. I have always loved the way movies can help us make sense of our stories or enter into the experience of others. All of these do just that.

10. Endgame

I had my issues with Endgame, which I wrote about. But I also think Marvel accomplished something really difficult, which was to create a (mostly) satisfying finale to an intricate and beloved franchise. The expectations were incredibly high, and they delivered. I’ll write more about the Marvel saga in my top ten of the decade, but for now Endgame deserves some recognition.

9. Frozen 2

The music is still pretty good, the cast receives some welcome additions, sisterhood remains strong, but Frozen 2 is about much more than that. At its heart, this installment is about the treatment of indigenous peoples and confronting our past. It’s about interrogating the narratives we’ve been given about who is in power and why. About reexamining relational dynamics and shared history. About willingness to make sacrificial changes in order to resolve deep wrongs. And about not being able to move forward until we tell the truth about history. Frozen 2 was much edgier than I expected, and much more impactful as a result. Disney still fell short in some of the voice casting, not matching the ethnicity of the characters with that of their voice actors. But they also took some better steps to incorporate and honor the input of Scandinavian indigenous artists and historians. All in all, putting forward some important lessons for the next generation.

8. Waves

What is it like to be young and reckless? How does it feel to be at once invincible and also deeply fragile? How do we process the impact our actions have on others? How do we move towards forgiveness? Waves is a family drama that beautifully explores these questions. Helmed by a stunning cast, the family navigates the volatility of their teenaged son’s dating relationship, multiple forms of loss, anger and rebuilding. The first half is frenetic and chaotic, embodying recklessness, anger and fear. The second half is quiet, withdrawn, cautious. It’s a look at what can break a family and what can hold them together.

7. Queen and Slim

On the surface this movie is about police violence against unarmed black people, but it quickly becomes an exploration of the breadth of the black community. From the emerging creative powerhouse of Lena Waithe, this first screenplay takes the catalyst of a police shooting and uses it to launch a complex story about survival, community, vulnerability, protest, and nuance. As the title characters (played deftly by Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) go on the run, they must learn to trust each other and observe the complexity of the black community’s response to their situation. It has generated mixed reactions from audiences, but it is undoubtedly unique and poignant.

(Content warning: the film contains an explicit sex scene. The encounter is tender and is used in the story to convey healthy vulnerability and trust. However it will not be appropriate for all viewers.)

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6. Honey Boy

I have seen a willingness and I believe a level of courage in Millennials to confront our past traumas and work towards emotional/mental health. That often includes processing the trauma of one’s parents, both theirs and the ones they have inflicted. Honey Boy does this is an unprecedentedly vulnerable way, with writer and star Shia LaBoef playing his own father. In a semi-autobiographical take on his own experiences, the story is set during what very much resembles the Even Stevens era, overlaid with his young adult stay in rehab. Young LaBoef is playing heartrendingly by Noah Jupe and the young adult version by Lucas Hedges (who, can we just acknowledge somehow ends up in all indie darlings?!) LaBoef literally steps into his father’s shoes and his perspective, embodying all his toxicity and abusive behavior, all his volatility and unrealized dreams. It is an emotional and disturbing story. It is also a brave exploration of the humanity of our parents. LaBoef demonstrates unflinching honesty combined with generosity towards his emotionally broken father and his isolated childhood self. That is the journey of healing, honesty and generosity. Honesty to name that which was deeply damaging, and generosity to also name the ways we all do the best we can with what we’re given at the time. We get to be witnesses to LaBoef’s process of healing, and we might be inspired to keep engaging our own healing along the way.

5. Little Women

First of all, there’s very little I can say that hasn’t already been said by Be Kind Rewind in her excellent video comparing the 4 primary iterations of this beloved classic (contains spoilers). But I loved Greta Gerwig’s adaptation! The book is split into two parts, following the March sisters as children/teens and then as young women. Gerwig splits the timeline in the film to place events side by side rather than strictly chronologically. This will be startling for some who are used to the previous adaptations, but it lends more depth and insight into why their lives and decisions develop as they do. The scenes of childhood are shot with a golden glow, while the more challenging and somber adulthood scenes have a colder and flintier feel. Gerwig taps into the angst so many young people feel about becoming adults and leaving behind the carefree ways of youth. We get to watch Jo experience that same transition and navigate her process of owning her life and her future and her art and her place in the world. It is a much-needed window into the difficulties of young adulthood and also the rewards of taking risks and pursuing meaningful relationships as an adult.

Gerwig clearly has a deep respect for the source material and the life and work of Louisa May Alcott. She blends more elements of Alcott’s real story into Jo’s arc, which was already semi-autobiographical. Alcott was an abolitionist (her family participated in the Underground Railroad and she even met Frederick Douglass), and she remained unmarried. Those themes are subtly worked into the film, giving it a more robust reflection of the original author and allowing Alcott to express what she was unable to during her own cultural/societal time. Gerwig also totally reimagines Amy, retaining her childishness in early life but allowing her character to demonstrate more complexity and purpose. Florence Pugh plays her perfectly, and nearly steals the whole movie which is quite a feat considering the already all-star cast. The relationships between the sisters take on new warmth and vibrancy in this version, their interactions are bursting with life and love. It is a lovely coming-of-age story that will inspire both men and women to take hold of the things that matter most and engage life with courage and hope.

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4. Parasite

Let’s take a minute to talk about how South Korean filmmakers are creating some dynamite movies! From the twisty and insightful Burning last year (available on Netflix, check the content guide for viewer discretion) to this year’s stunning festival favorite, Parasite, South Korea is asking big questions about class, income inequality and the role of Millennials in society. Parasite works best if you don’t know much about it, so I’ll let the film speak for itself. Suffice it to say that it’s a drama/heist/thriller genre-bender about a poor family and a wealthy family, how their lives intersect, and how social class impacts the ways we live and treat one another. Ivan wrote about its unexpected parallels to Downton Abbey, check out his review and don’t miss this wild work of storytelling.

3. The Last Black Man in San Fransisco

I wrote extensively about why this film is so powerful in my review earlier in the summer. This is a semi-autobiographical story about a young black man in San Fransisco who is wrestling with themes of ownership, belonging, home, gentrification, and what it means to be part of a place. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It had a relatively short theatrical release so check it out streaming on Amazon Prime.

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2. The Farewell

What started as a This American Life episode became a powerful film about family and culture. Written and directed by LuLu Wang, (also semi-autobiographical) The Farewell follows a young first generation Chinese-American woman (played wonderfully in a dramatic turn by Awkwafina) who travels back to China with her parents to visit her grandmother who has just been diagnosed with cancer. The thing is, her grandmother doesn’t know about her diagnosis and it is Chinese tradition not to tell her. The family all knows and invent a reason to all gather and, unbeknownst to her, give her their last goodbyes. The film is an exploration of the experience of being bicultural, trying to find out where you fit and what you want to embrace and what you want to reject. It’s about the loneliness and potential isolation of being separated from your family in a new culture. It’s about family and the ways we carry one another’s burdens. It’s about seeing the value in what initially feels foreign but is driven by a deep commitment to connection and selflessness. Now available to rent or buy, make sure to check this one out.

1. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I was reluctant to see this one. I LOVED the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor and had a hard time believing anything could top it. But director Marielle Heller proved me wrong. Rather than broadly being about Mr. Rogers, Beautiful Day draws from Fred’s real life friendship with journalist Tom Junod which began when Junod interviewed him for an Esquire profile in 1998. You MUST read this incredible piece which moved me to tears multiple times, and the follow-up that he wrote this summer in advance of the release of the movie. Junod was a man struggling with anger and bitterness, and Mr. Rogers changed him forever. The film follows their meeting and the ways that Fred chose Tom to be his friend (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the movie) and entered his life. The film is loosely formatted like an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, and Tom Hanks does a wonderful job of capturing Fred’s personality and aura. Heller has said in interviews that one of her hardest jobs as director was to get the actors to slow down to Fred’s pace of life. His conversation and relating were so slow and deliberate, making whoever was in front of him feel important. Hanks translates the look of delight that would come to Fred’s face so easily anytime a person did something that was significant to them and that they wanted to share. But the movie is not just about Mr. Rogers, but about the impact of who he was and the way he lived. To learn to process our anger and hurt so that we can move towards forgiveness and healing. (As he said, “If it’s mentionable then it’s manageable.”) To live with intentionality and compassion is to effect the people around you for the better. And I think Mr. Rogers would be the first to say that’s something all of us can do.

 

Joker: Should We Sympathize with Evil?

It’s been out for two weeks, and Joker has already sparked a season’s worth of controversy. It won the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix is getting widespread praise for his leading performance, and it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. All great accolades which should indicate this film is a must-see.

Joker is a stand-alone story loosely set in the DC Comics universe, an anomaly these days as seemingly every new action movie hopes to launch a franchise. It is an origin story of sorts for Batman’s most popular nemesis, The Joker. This is already a bold departure from comic book canon as The Joker notoriously lacks a personal history. A characteristic played upon so well by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, who asks others throughout the movie, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?”, always telling a different story to each person. He is a shadow, unknown, unpredictable, unscrupulous.

But director Todd Phillips takes his Joker in an altogether different direction. We follow Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged down-and-out clown with a history of mental illness. He works thankless jobs and gets beat up by street kids. His social worker is apathetic and ineffective. He has to care for his invalid mother. He has a chronic, uncontrollable laugh that makes social situations painfully awkward. And then the city budget for social services gets cut and he can no longer get his much-needed prescriptions. He is a person who has been beaten down by life and forgotten by the system. As a result, he turns to increasingly erratic and brutal acts of violence.

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This is what I found so problematic about Joker. It gives evil a sympathetic back-story. Arthur kills multiple people throughout the film, with additional situations alluding to possible violence that occurs off-screen. But all of his victims to some extent “had it coming.” None of them are innocent bystanders, his killings all have some form of reason behind them. Perhaps they did not deserve to die, but the audience can understand why Arthur acts as he does. And in many ways this takes Arthur off the hook. He is a product of the system. He is a product of chronic mistreatment. He is a product of isolation. He is a product of the true villain: Society.

But if we give evil a sympathetic back-story, it is no longer evil. It is no longer purely malicious and destructive, it is simply a reaction to forces outside one’s control. This may be one reason why the Bible is conspicuously silent on the origin of evil. We have plenty of lore about Satan, everyone has a different story about his downfall, very little of which is actually rooted in scripture. He is the true Joker, a force of decay seeking to tear down the structures of society with no aim other than to cause chaos. As Alfred so sagely puts it in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” As God’s true opposite, Satan embodies everything that God is not: deceit, selfishness, isolation, hatred, shame, bitterness, injustice, destruction, etc. And that is what Satan seeks to propagate in God’s world. How evil came to be is irrelevant because it does not change the nature of what it is. It is inherently and purposefully negative in every way. It is not a product of other forces, it is the force.

So it is a dangerous game to justify the unjustifiable. To humanize the inhumane. To make evil a victim rather than expose him for a victimizer. There is a reason that Satan is called the Deceiver. Jesus says his native language is lies (John 8). Joker is just one more product of a Deceiver who would convince us that he is not so bad after all. One who would fabricate a sympathetic origin-story to make his villainy less villainous in an effort to convince our culture that there is no absolute evil, just a lot of misunderstandings and bad breaks. That our biggest problem is Society and not the presence of sin in the world and in our hearts.

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It’s not a surprise that Joker is theologically flawed, but it’s also thematically flawed. While Phoenix’s lead performance is indeed mesmerizing, it is for little good purpose. The way the story is told perpetuates the flagrantly toxic narrative that white men only resort to violence as a result of mental health issues, thereby exonerating them of personal responsibility or plain malfeasance. The film also portrays a narrative that mental health treatment is useless and mental health professionals have nothing helpful to offer. What a bleak, hopeless picture it could also potentially paint for those who struggle with their mental health. No one will help you, you are all alone, and you may as well give in to the negative thoughts.

If that wasn’t enough, Phillips treats his female characters poorly, making them weak and incompetent victims of Arthur’s outbreaks. His strong female cast are wasted in roles that do nothing with their talent. In its most extreme interpretation, Joker also glorifies acts of violence and glamorizes them as “starting a movement.” By the end of the film, Arthur feels a sense of power and belonging through receiving a positive public response to his actions. All of these messages have the potential to impact individuals and audiences in a dangerous and harmful way.

Perhaps Phillips wanted to draw attention to a broken economic system. Perhaps he wanted to confront America with our neglect of the poor and unwell. But what he produced is a shoddy and cynical story. One that runs the risk of perpetuating the things it claims to indict, and one that allows evil to wear a mask of decency. We do not move forward as a society by continuing cycles of violence. We do not move forward by creating so many anti-heroes that we never unmask our true villains. That can only be done by naming evil for what it is, and turning away from it. Change doesn’t happen by disguising evil in the garb of artistic cinematography and art-house performance. That is not true to the character, and is just another clumsily cloaked lie passing for insight.

Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

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From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

Communal-Care driven by Christ-Care

The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.

 

The women of Marvel ask, “What is a girl worth?”

I first heard this question posed by real life superhero Rachel Denhollander at the trial of Larry Nassar. Denhollander is a lawyer and a survivor of the decades of systematic abuse of girls perpetuated by the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State doctor. She presented this question to the court at his sentencing: “How much is a girl worth?” She and hundreds of others like her had been told by Nassar and the systems that protected him that they were worth less than him. They were worth less than Olympic gold medals, less than athletic achievement, less than the comfort of the adults in power. That day in the courtroom, more than 150 women told their stories and asserted their equal worth to the world.

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*CONTAINS ENDGAME AND CAPTAIN MARVEL SPOILERS*

As our country wrestles with the way our society views and treats women, these questions are being reflected on the big screen of Marvel blockbusters. There are ways that Marvel is ahead of the curve and elevating women in important ways. Black Panther is a shining example of offering women extended screen time and complex and interconnected roles. I have written about that here. It is also a very good thing that the number of women in the MCU is vast and diverse and continues to grow. But it is not enough to simply be on screen.

Black Widow and Gamora are in the wrong stories

One more warning, I am about to discuss Endgame and Infinity War spoilers!

I hate the soul stone. This piece of junk has claimed the lives of two strong female characters, the only initial women in two teams of men (the Avengers and the Guardians). I understand that the movies needed to have real stakes. I understand that you can make compelling storyline arguments for why it needed to be them and why it made the story pack a deeper punch. And that is the problem. These two complex and wonderfully acted characters are in stories that see them as expendable. That use them to make the audience feel something. The story was written such that it did not make sense for any other character to be the one lying dead at the bottom of the cliff. Either because the other characters on their teams are too strong and powerful to die, or because the men were not written in a way where their death makes sense in the story.

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This reveals a systemic problem in the writing approach at Marvel. Having female characters who can fight effectively but who are clearly less crucial than their male counterparts is not a win. If you cannot have a good movie without Thor, without Captain American, without Star-Lord, but the movie can survive without Black Widow and Gamora, then you are not writing a good movie. Do not give us a strong and intriguing Gamora only to watch her die in a domestic abuse scenario where her abuser kills her because he “loves” her. Do not give us the option that she and Nebula are “the only ones” who can stop him and then lose them in the crowd. Do not give us a non-traditional Black Widow who is finding meaning and purpose outside of having biological children, just to have her sacrifice her life so the man with kids can live. Do not give us yet another woman who loses her life so others can flourish at her expense. That is already our every day. Give us something better. Write a better story.

Give us more Mar-vells and Marvels

The negative reaction to Captain Marvel is case-in-point why the movie was so needed. This story is about what it is like to be a woman in society. To be held back and to have your power diminished by others and then told by those same systems to be grateful for the small opportunities we are given. To be told that to be emotional and intuitive is a liability and should be suppressed if we want to succeed. To be told that we need to prove ourselves before we can be taken seriously. To be gaslighted into thinking that our instincts are wrong and we are misinterpreting and misremembering our own stories. Captain Marvel both names destructive social realities and paints a better way forward.

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Ask any woman who watched the movie how she felt when Carol simply blasts Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as he yells for her to prove herself. Or why it was important to make Mar-vell’s character be female and a professional inspiration for Carol. This was not just being “politically correct.” There is a reason why Carol sees Mar-vell when she visits the Supreme Intelligence, even when she does not know who she’s seeing. Most women do not have female role models in our fields and careers. We often do not have accomplished women who look like us (this can be especially true for women of color) who inspire us to think we can succeed. It was so meaningful to watch a female professional mentoring relationship. It was empowering to watch a woman refuse to prove herself within a false system but to instead shatter the expectations that were preventing her from taking ownership of her story. This is good writing. This is what we want to see.

Another woman, Kyle Stephens, in the circle of survivors in the courtroom with Denhollander and the others that day said:

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. We grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”

This is your audience, Marvel. We have some marvelous heroines in our universe who are changing the game. We are not content with old systems and old stories. We will support writing that reflects who we are and who we are becoming. And we will destroy that which tells us we are less. Because we are worth more than that.

Why Are Millennials So Self-Absorbed?

I’ve heard it countless times. The endless criticism of the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “ self-absorbed”, “spoiled”, the list goes on. My generation almost exclusively hears negative things about us from the generations above us. I was recently listening to public radio and heard yet another negative report on the podcast Hidden Brain about the rise of narcissism among young people. The host discussed social research findings and the impact of having to feel like we are “special” all the time. I listened to this and I felt deeply hurt. I felt so hurt because I felt terribly alone. It is easy to talk about the symptoms of self-absorption in millennials, I have yet to hear anyone ask “why is this happening?” I believe the majority of millennials feel alone, and if we are self-absorbed it might be because all we have is ourselves.

We have no heroes

Give me a list of 20 public figures who do not have some kind of scandal attached to them. I’ll wait. So many of the people we looked up to as children have become mired in allegations of destructive behavior. From coaches convicted of systematic abuse of children, athletes who sexually exploited others, political figures who were not the people they claimed to be, actors and comedians and TV show hosts who turned out to be abusive and selfish. There are very few people left that model integrity and selflessness. Part of the reason Won’t You Be My Neighbor struck such a cord is because it is borderline shocking when someone we grew up with is actually a kind person. Was actually trustworthy and cared about us. We have become distressingly accustomed to our role models being hypocrites and secretly toxic. Why would we look outward when all we see is disappointment and abused trust? Is it not much safer to trust only ourselves?

We have no heroes…including our parents

I was recently sitting around a table with five 18-23 year-olds and I was the only one in the group who grew up in a loving, stable home. In my eleven years of working with college students, it is the exception when a young person comes from a family where the parents are together and have a healthy relationship and lifestyle. Most of the time today’s young people are carrying a great deal of pain and alienation that started in their homes. Hurts not only from divorce but from emotional neglect, parental unreliability, patterns of sin and addiction in the home, death and tragedy, and a lack of feeling known and loved by their parents. The people who were created to offer us unconditional love and support have very often let us down in deeply wounding ways. Is it any wonder that we turn to our devices and social networks for validation and connection?

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Pornography is everywhere

I have yet to hear anyone include the prevalence of pornography in discussions about narcissism and mental health among millennials. We are constantly told that we are bad at relating to others and lack resilience, and none of those same critics ask how the availability of pornography in the digital age has shaped an entire generation to be emotionally and physically isolated. Pornography is the ultimate example of self-absorption. It is designed in such a way that it allows a person to be alone while receiving the illusion of connection. It removes the need for others while creating a false sense of shared reality. And it is a very bitter master. It keeps its users trapped in isolation by appearing to meet needs and then paralyzing them from being able to experience true connection and intimacy. It distorts one’s ability to empathize with others and accurately interpret social situations. The Atlantic began a conversation about pornography’s impact in an article on the sexual recession that is occurring among young people. An entire generation does not have the tools to form meaningful and lasting intimate relationships. So we are alone. We stay home, falling deeper into unhealthy patterns, lacking the tools or support to find a better way. Lonely and scared of one another.

We don’t have the church

Countless reports will tell you that millennials and younger are the least churched generation. The reasons for this are many. Church sexual scandals are an obvious and legitimate one. From the Catholic church to multiple other denominations and congregations hiding abusive leaders and systemic sin. This has caused a generation of “little ones” to stumble (Luke 17:2). Add to this generations of racism (The Color of Compromise) and sexism, and young people who care very much about issues of justice and inequality are going to view the church with profound cynicism. The church in America has also struggled to adapt to social changes. Leaving many young people walking out the doors on a Sunday morning feeling that it was not for them and their presence is of little consequence to the other worshippers. This is indeed a great social tragedy. The Family of God has the potential to add so much meaning and support and can be a major protective factor in the lives of young people. Without it, we have neither an extended support system nor a transforming relationship with Christ to sustain and pull us outwards and into the broader community. Whenever I see research data revealing that young people are more lonely, depressed and anxious than ever, I know it is connected to not having faith and truth in their lives. If we do not have faith communities to care for us and invite us into a bigger story, with what are we left?

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So what do we do? I can start by saying that we would benefit from less criticism and more compassion. No one becomes who they are in a vacuum, please take time to empathize with us and why we have resorted to the coping patterns we have. This is not to let millennials off the hook for the unhealthy trends in our midst. We need to own our lives and develop better coping methods. But yelling and demeaning has never helped anyone grow and change and has certainly never helped someone feel less alone. We are your children and grandchildren, we are not aliens from another planet. Please get to know us and give us a little credit. Questions I have rarely heard from a baby-boomer are, “Why do you think that is? What do you think about that?” Spend more time building bridges and inviting us into a shared way forward and less time writing us off. The majority of millennials I know are passionate, intelligent, curious, and hopeful. We all need one another. Please join with us and allow us to speak into your lives as well. We cannot do this alone.

Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

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Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

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John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

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Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

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Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

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Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

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Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

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Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!