It’s getting harder to glean good life lessons from Hollywood stories.
Today’s tales too often focus on antiheroes, souls who quicken our pulse but leave little room for role modeling.
Other films flood the screen with hard-left talking points, the kind conservative parents want their sons to avoid.
It wasn’t always this way.
Once upon a time, parents could watch a movie with their sons and have long, healthy conversations about the lessons shared by the characters in the film.
The following nine films allow just that, giving parents fresh tools to teach their children right from wrong, and so much more.
It’s arguably the best western of its kind and a perfect film to watch with your son. Why? Alan Ladd’s gunslinger is the prototypical hero, but only on the surface. He’s burdened by the killing he’s done in his life, and he’s seeking peace, not more bloodshed. His reluctant heroism resurfaces when a crooked cattle baron (Emile Meyer) threatens the Starretts, who could use Shane’s particular set of skills to save their home.
Young Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) is enamored of Shane’s grit and gunslinging, and Shane returns the admiration with firm lessons about the power of a gun and more.
There’s no crying in baseball, but the manliest of men are allowed a tear or two during “Shane’s” closing moments.
Steven Spielberg’s classic serves up not one, not two, but three male archetypes. Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) is calm and calculated, a good man confronted by his ultimate nightmare — a beach held hostage by a killer shark. Hooper the shark researcher (Richard Dreyfuss) uses his brain to solve problems, but he’s not above getting dirty to get the job done.
And then there’s Quint (Robert Shaw), a raging Id who will stop at nothing to snare that shark.
There’s bravery and bravado aplenty, with Sheriff Brody pushing aside his seasickness to save his town from more bloodshed. It’s a near-perfect treatise on what it means to be a man from several critical angles.
“About a Boy” (2002)
Hugh Grant stars as Will, a trust fund type who feels little pressure to grow up. He’s also a consummate liar, pretending to be a single dad to score with the ladies. His shtick hits a rough patch when he meets Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), a lad who needs a father figure-badly … even one as damaged as Will.
The two connect, allowing Marcus to have the male influence missing in his life. As for Will, he’s shown what it means to be a father and, even more, a grown up.
Rachel Weisz enters the movie as Will’s love interest, but the film cares more about the essential Will-Marcus bond than traditional rom-com beats.
This neglected gem cast Teri Garr as a single mom eager to meet Mr. Right. She settles for Mr. Oh, So Wrong (Peter Weller), a con artist whose presence upsets the entire family, especially teenage son Jake (Christopher Collett).
Jake has plenty of the usual teen struggles, but he’s forced to grow up, and fast, to protect not just his mom but his kid brother (Corey Haim in his film debut).
Teens shouldn’t have to serve as the man of the house, but it’s a role thrust upon Jake at the worst possible time. Watching him grow up before our eyes gives way to a gentle, poignant coda.
“My Bodyguard” (1980)
Conservative actor Adam Baldwin made an impressive debut with a drama that doesn’t get enough cultural love. Young Clifford (Chris Makepeace) is getting bullied at school, but he thinks he has a solution.
He hires Ricky (Baldwin), a quiet, hulking recluse to be his “bodyguard” against his schoolyard nemesis (Matt Dillon). Things don’t go exactly as Clifford plans, but he learns to look past outward appearances and, later, stand on his own two feet.
Ricky, in turn, learns to trust new friends, a step that didn’t seem possible at the start of the film.
“The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006)
Will Smith stars in this fact-based story brimming with hope, determination and an American dream that feels out of reach. It’s a rag-to-riches story based on the life of Chris Gardner (Smith), a man with an unflagging faith in capitalism.
Smith joins his real-life son, Jaden Smith, for a heartbreaking story of fatherly devotion, persistence and grace. Parents can use Gardner’s arc to show their sons what it means to study hard, knock on every door and always try to do the best for your family.
Smith may be a superstar thanks to “MIB” and the “Bad Boys” franchise, but “Happyness” remains the best Smith vehicle for father-son discussions.
“The Karate Kid” (1984)
“Cobra Kai” made this franchise cool again, but the original “Kid” didn’t need any artificial boost. Young Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is getting bullied at school. Sound familiar? Only these thugs study under a sensei who relishes cruelty above all. His disciples, especially Johnny Lawrence (‘80s go-to villain William Zabka), happily oblige.
Daniel finds a father figure and karate mentor in Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), a gentle soul with a curious method of training. Together, they grow strong enough to challenge Johnny Lawrence and Team Cobra Kai.
“Flash of Genius” (2008)
President Obama’s toxic lament, “You didn’t build that,” is precisely why this Greg Kinnear vehicle matters.
The “Talk Soup” alum plays Bob Kearns, an inventor who creates an intermittent windshield wiper device that could revolutionize car safety. The fact-based film follows how Bob is beaten down by the system — i.e. Ford Motor Company — robbed of well-earned glory and stripped of his dignity along the way.
He perseveres, providing an essential role model to his young children. It’s not that simple, though. What did Bob lose in the fight? Time with his family, for starters. His stubbornness hurt his marriage, too. The film offers complex questions with no easy answers, all the better to explore in post-film conversations.
“The Way, Way Back” (2013)
Father figures come in all shapes and sizes. Some can even be found at the local water park. Liam James stars as Duncan, a quiet teen forced to spend summer vacation with his mother and her ne’er do well beau (Steve Carell, beautifully cast against type).
Everything seems horrible until Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell, never better) at the nearby amusement park. Owen doesn’t play by the rules, and he’s a far from perfect role model. Still, he helps Duncan come out of his titanium-strength shell, installs the first few molecules of confidence within him and kick-starts the boy’s journey to manhood.
Coming-of-age stories can make your eyes roll when handled poorly. Not “The Way, Way Back.” The film brims with relatable themes about the steps en route to adulthood, for better and worse.
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