Tuesday, February 1, 2011

10 Movies Illustrating Topics and Concepts Pertinent to "At-Risk" Youth

I received a question about movies and books that illustrate topics and concepts pertinent to working with "at-risk" youth. The movies below also have themes related to the importance of relationship, hope, and resiliency.

Q: Do you have a category of current or relatively current favorite movies or book titles that address concepts or topics pertinent to working with at-risk youth? I want to be able to illustrate the importance of relationship, hope, and resiliency for a class I am teaching. Any ideas you have would be greatly and deeply appreciated. 

A: This question is a tall order! The main focus of this post is to showcase movies with themes related to relationship, hope, and resiliency with a focus on "at-risk" youth. However, I have mentioned some books that meet the above criteria.  The following movies are 10 of my favorites.  Some of them you can even watch instantly on Amazon Video On Demand.

Freedom Writers (Widescreen Edition)1. Freedom Writers

Themes: abuse/neglect, diversity, gangs, incarceration, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency, school, tolerance

Synopsis from Amazon.com: 
A young teacher, Erin Gruwell (Hillary Swank), inspires her class of at-risk students to learn tolerance, apply themselves, & pursue education beyond high school.

Why to watch it: Freedom Writers is one of my favorite movies of all time. The movie is based on a true story of how Erin Gruwell went above and beyond to expose the students to the world outside to LA. Gruwell made the curriculum fit her students needs and interests. My post, "The Line Game,"is from the Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide and is also portrayed in the movie.

Freedom Writers, the movie, is amazing, but if you want even more inspiration, you have to read the The Freedom Writers Diary, the original book written by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers.  I have read all of the Freedom Writers books. I use The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide for classroom lessons, and group counseling sessions.  I am using a few different activities from The Freedom Writers Diary Teacher's Guide in a counseling group for children who have a parent or sibling in jail or prison. Erin Gruwell also wrote Teach with Your Heart: Lessons I Learned from The Freedom Writers and Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers and Erin Gruwell which are both amazing and inspirational.

ABC News Primetime Freedom Writers2.  ABC News Primetime: Freedom Writers

Themes: abuse/neglect, diversity, gangs, incarceration, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency, school, tolerance

Synopsis from Amazon.com: A teacher, Erin Gruwell, finds a unique way to inspire her students to learn and who dramatically changed their lives, from hopelessness and despair to a future of limitless possibilities.

Why to watch it: The ABC News Primetime: Freedom Writers is an interview with the real Erin Gruwell and the real Freedom Writers students. This movie would be great to show by itself or in conjunction with the hollywood Freedom Writers movie. I am planning to show parts of the Freedom Writers movie and The ABC News Primetime: Freedom Writers movie to my 7th grade girls group.

Good Hair3. Good Hair

Themes:  poverty, racial oppression, resiliency, self-esteem

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Chris Rock visits beauty salons and hairstyling battles, scientific laboratories and Indian temples to explore the way hairstyles impact the activities, pocketbooks, sexual relationships, and self-esteem of the black community in this exposé of comic proportions that only he could pull off. A raucous adventure prompted by Rock’s daughter approaching him and asking, "Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair,” GOOD HAIR shows Chris Rock engaging in frank, funny conversations with hair-care professionals, beauty shop and barbershop patrons, and celebrities including Ice-T, Nia Long, Paul Mooney, Raven Symoné, Dr. Maya Angelou, Salt-N-Pepa, Eve and Reverend Al Sharpton – all while he struggles with the task of figuring out how to respond to his daughter's question.

Why to watch it: I highly, highly recommend watching Good Hair!!! Chris Rock explores the topic of "Good Hair" in a way that is informative and comical. At the inner-city school where I work, the topic of hair comes up daily.  Hair is a status symbol. If girls do not have their hair "done"or if they do not have a "good" weave, they can be the target of bullying.  Girls who have hair that is a "mess" or that looks "natural" are talked about.  Good Hair opened my eyes to the cost of hair products and weaves.  Chris Rock interviews a variety of celebrities about their hair. If celebrities are stressing about their hair I can't imagine the level of stress the students I work with face on a daily basis about their hair. 

American Violet4. American Violet

Themes: abuse/neglect, incarceration, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Nicole Beharie (The Express), Will Patton (EntrapmentThe Postman), Charles Dutton (TV's RocMimic) and Alfre Woodard (TV's Desperate HousewivesPrimal Fear) star in this gripping true-life story. Falsely accused of distributing narcotics in a school zone, Dee Roberts (Beharie) is offered a deal she can't refuse: plead guilty and accept a 10-year suspended sentence. The alternative: risk serving 16-to-25 in jail. Realizing a conviction would ruin her life, Dee decides to fight back. Suing the DA for racial discrimination, Dee battles impossible odds in a case that will not only change her life but the laws of Texas as well.

Why to watch it: I stumbled upon American Violet by accident. I was looking for a movie to watch one night and American Violet caught my eye. I had never heard of it before. I never saw it advertised. It is an amazing movie. One the scenes in the movie that sticks with me the most, is a scene where Dee's daughter, Sharice is carefully carrying her grandmother's bowl to a neighbors house.  All of a sudden, Sharice is in the midst of a large scale police drug bust.  She trips and the bowl, that has been passed down for generations, shatters.  I work with many students who have a one or both parents in jail. This movie shows the children's reactions to their mother being incarcerated and readjusting to their mother being home again. The children, especially Sharice, are worried their mother could be taken away again at any time. American Violet is a gripping movie, that sends you on a whirlwind trip of emotions. 

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire5. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Themes: abuse/neglect, incest, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency, school, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Precious Jones, an inner-city high school girl, is illiterate, overweight, and pregnant…again. Naïve and abused, Precious responds to a glimmer of hope when a door is opened by an alternative-school teacher. She is faced with the choice to follow opportunity and test her own boundaries. Prepare for shock, revelation and celebration.

Why to watch it: Shock is definitely the word that comes to mind about this movie. Tissues are a must have for this one. This movie is tragic and depressing at times. Precious must come over so many hurdles in her life. She is amazingly resilient! The amount of violence and hatred Precious experiences from her mother can be difficult to watch at times. Although Precious does give some feel good vibes at the end, it is a heavy, heavy film.  It is a must watch movie, but follow it up with something lighthearted and funny. 

Stand & Deliver6. Stand and Deliver
Themes: abuse/neglect, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency, school

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Look at the too-cool-to-cope kids in Jaime Escalante's class at East L.A.'s tough Garfield High, and many will say they see a bunch of losers. Escalante sees scholars. How he cajoles, instructs, challenges and inspires his no-expectations barrio kids to pass the daunting Calculus Advanced Placement Test forms the amazing heart of Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips.

Why to watch it: Although this movie takes place in 1988, the messages ring true today. Stand and Deliver, like Freedom Writers, is about an inspirational teacher who believed in the potential of students.  Mr. Escalante pushed his students to succeed and changed their lives. 

Lean on Me (Keepcase)7. Lean on Me

Themes: abuse/neglect, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency, school

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Paterson, New Jersey's Eastside High is the setting for Lean on Me, starring Morgan Freeman as bat-and-bullhorn-toting principal Joe Clark, whose controversial methods turned the failing school around and made Clark a national symbol of tough-love education. His message: Don't lean on excuses, drugs or anger. Lean on yourself and me...and learn. 

Why to watch it: Lean on Me is powerful and shocking at times. Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman), calls for a complete overhaul of the failing New Jersey school. He literally cleans house, not just by cleaning the physical building, but by kicking out students who are not serious about their education.  He announces high expectations and expect students to rise to the occasion. 

Boyz 'N the Hood8. Boyz 'N the Hood
Themes: abuse/neglect, poverty, violence, poverty, racial oppression, resiliency 

Synopsis from Amazon.com: The story about three friends growing up in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, and of street life where friendship, pain, danger, and love combine to form reality. 'The hood' is a place where drive-by shootings and unemployment are rampant. But it is also a place where harmony co-exists with adversity.

Why to watch it: I was at a training where they showed a clip from this movie and it made me want to watch the whole thing. This is a powerful movie that depicts many issues that inner-city adolescents face. 

Antwone Fisher (Widescreen Edition)9. Antwone Fisher

Themes: abuse/neglect, masculinity, poverty, violence, racial oppression, resiliency, sexual abuse 

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Inspired by the true life experiences of its title character, Antwone Fisher tells the dramatic story of a troubled sailor (Luke) who is ordered to see a naval psychiatrist (Washington) about his volatile temper. Little does he know that his first step into the doctor's office will lead him on a remarkable emotional journey to confront his painful past--and connect with the family he never knew.

Why to watch it: When I worked at the Allegheny County Jail as a substitute school counselor, the counselor I was going to cover showed this movie to all of the juvenile students in the jail school program. She had the students watch the movie and discuss the feelings Antwone Fisher was feeling under the anger he expressed. The students could relate to Antwone and the struggles he faced in his life. It was amazing to see how the students were so open to share about their lives and how they could relate to what Antwone was going through presently and what he endured in the past.  It would be beneficial to show some of the clips from this movie to boys in anger management groups or boy groups working with children of incarcerated parents

The Blind Side10. The Blind Side
Themes: abuse/neglect, homelessness, poverty, violence racial oppression, resiliency

Synopsis from Amazon.com: Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron) knows little about family. Less about football. What the homeless teen knows are the streets and projects of Memphis. Well-to-do Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) knows little about his world. Yet when she and Michael meet, he's found a home. And the Tuohys have found something just as life-changing: a beloved new son and brother. This real-life story of family and of Michael's growth into a blue-chip football star will have you cheering with its mix of gridiron action and heartwarming emotion. Share the remarkable journey of the college All-American and first-round NFL draft pick who was a winner before he ever stepped onto the playing field.

Why to watch it: This heartfelt movie, The Blind Side, is based on a true story. I believe the Tuohy family receives more of an education than Michael. The Blind Side is not as in your face as some of the other movies I recommended. It is inspirational and shows one person truly can make a difference in someone else's life.

What is your movie with a theme related to relationship, hope, and resiliency with a focus on "at-risk" youth? Comment below, email metweet, or share on the School Counselor Blog Facebook Page!

Danielle is a K-12 Certified School Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor, and blogger at School Counselor Blog, a blog where school counselors can share innovative ideas, creative lesson plans, and quality resources.  Contact Danielle via email, follow her on twitter, and become a fan of the School Counselor Blog Facebook Page.


  1. You forgot Akeelah and the Bee!

  2. One of my favorites is Take the Lead, with Antonio Banderas. I've used it or clips from it in class guidance before. It's a great movie.

  3. Thanks Rick and Gayle for your suggestions! I put them in my Netflix queue!

  4. guys can you please suggest me my next move in leading counselling sessions ,i have already shared intro with all students and by giving the tiny acivities trying to know them ,their writing abilities ,and areas of weakness,but now i want it to be more interesting for students please let me know what should i do next i mean the curriculum aspect what it should be for 1-9 grades

  5. I admire those books and movies that are filled with information that can be used in dealing with things and these really held in dealing with at-risk youth. The writers are very intelligent because they make use with their talent to help others. D hoe to read and see movies that can help me deal with thing in my daily struggles.

  6. good will hunting is my all time fav very sad but very uplifting maybe watch and add to your list

  7. I agree Laura! "Good Will Hunting" is one of my all time favorite movies! I can't believe I didn't add it to the list! I am sure there are way more out there too that I am forgetting!

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