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Resilience, Determination, & Other Life Lessons Learned at the Movies

I loved Disney movies when I was a kid. While I enjoyed the cartoons, what I really loved were the live-action films with an uplifting message. They were schmaltzy and somewhat simplistic in their messages, but they were fun to watch and always left you with an easily digestible life lesson. Looking back, I think that my favorite was “Follow Me Boys” starring Fred McMurray and a really young Kurt Russell. I owned a VHS copy and watched it over and over again. The movie was about a guy who loves working with kids, becomes the scout leader for the town, and ultimately helps a generation of kids grow into a young people of character. Now that I think about it, maybe that film influenced my desire to be a camp director. 

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This past weekend I took my kids to see a new Disney movie called McFarland, USA, and it that harkened back to those Disney films that I loved from from the 60’s and 70’s. It’s about a group of extremely poor teens living in rural California during the mid-80’s. They are all Mexican-American, and they, along with their parents, support their families by picking the fruits and vegetables that the rest of the country eats. They reach the fields to perform back breaking work in the hours before their schoolday begins, and somehow have enough energy to make it through a school day, AND afternoon varsity sports. A new high school coach comes to town and he is inspired by the athletic prowess, and incredible work ethic, of these students. Seeing that the teens are gifted runners (as one actor says in the film “I don’t have a car and I need to get places”) he creates a Cross Country team, and the film goes on to the chronicle their successes and failures. 

It’s a great story, and the sort of feel-good movie I grew up loving (do yourself a favor and bring along some tissues. It gets emotional). That said, as we were leaving the theater I found myself marveling at some of the things that didn’t happen in this movie. First, it avoided the trap of so many sports films that have come before it. It avoided the montage where, set to inspirational music, the rag-tag group of misfits quickly comes together as a team and is suddenly and miraculously poised for greatness. Instead, we see how gruelingly hard these young men worked, day in and day out. We see them truly struggle both physically and emotionally as they labor towards their goal of becoming elite runners.

Second, unlike so many “based on a true story” films, this story wasn’t about how the coach turned his players into people of value, but rather, how the he was able to recognize what made each of his athletes special. By getting to know them as people, and understanding their unique set of attributes and talents, he was able to see their potential and help them realize it. 

It is for these reasons that this film has stuck with me for days. In the dark of the theater I kept saying to myself this is an actual movie geared towards children that tells a story of resilience, determination and collaboration. We actually watched some of the struggles of what it took these kids to become a team. In doing so it portrayed what anyone working with young people knows all too well: that true growth takes time, repetition, and a whole lot of nurturing. There’s no magic behind it — just goal setting, hardwork, critical thinking, and the ability to adapt to changing situations. That’s an important message, and one that you don’t always see in some of the most popular sports movies.

As we were leaving the theater I asked my kids what they thought of McFarland, USA. My youngest said that he felt like running all of the way home. That didn’t surprise me, as I remember seeing The Karate Kid and thinking that I was three lessons away from becoming a black belt. But my oldest looked at me and said “I can’t believe how hard they worked. Those guys were amazing”. That was one of the life lessons I hoped he would take away from this film — though it was not the only one. This film also deftly addresses issues of race and class in ways you don’t typically see in a PG-rated film. If you take your kids be prepared to discuss topics like racial prejudice and income inequality afterwards. 

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Most of our evening activities are active, outdoors and creative, but throughout each summer we show movies 4-5 times. Like everything else we do here at our summer camp in New Hampshire, we try to be as intentional in our selections as we can be. Certainly, our hope is that whatever we show is not only entertaining and appropriate for our young audience, but has a great message behind it. In years past we’ve shown classics like “Stand By Me”, “Hoosiers”, “We Are Marshall”, and back when I was a kid, “The Mouse That Roared”. Each contained a message that I know stayed with me and my peers long after the lights came up. 

In the last few days I’ve been trying to think about what other films should be on our list for 2015. Should we show Brian’s Song, Remember The Titans, or Radio? How about  School of Rock, Miracle, or The Perfect Game? What about non-sports movies like The Ron Clark Story, Akeelah and the Bee, and the Freedom Writers? What films – even if they weren’t shot in the era of high definition – do you think are in line with our camp community’s values of citizenship, hard work, creativity, and friendship (and would still be enjoyed by today’s kids)? What movies really stuck with you when you were a child? Please help us build a list, so that our movie nights are as intentional as the rest of our program. And consider seeing McFarland, USA. We might go again this weekend. 

Camps Kenwood and Evergreen is a values-driven summer camp in New Hampshire. Our innovative program teaches empathy, understanding and friendship, along with sports and arts, to tomorrow’s leaders and innovators. 

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