It’s strange how ninety-plus minutes of moving images can be educational. In this time of uncertainty, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on things I take for granted on a day-to-day basis; the ability to choose, the way the world feels when you step outside your front door and join it, the short train ride home to my parents’. I think we all had dreams and expectations of how this year would look, the places we’d go, the lessons we’d learn, the movies we’d see. This version now seems like a distant memory, “when you were born, I told you life was very big and unknown,” is a quote from Mike Mills’ 2016 indie, ’20th Century Women’. In a few short words, it summarises how unexpected and surprising our existence can be. “I don’t know if we ever figure our lives out, and the people who help you, they might not be who you thought or wanted, they might just be the people who show up,” is the thought Dorothea leaves us with at the end of the trailer. The collective experience we are all living through feels reminiscent of this. It isn’t what we thought or wanted, but we will all learn a great deal during this period, and perhaps arise better for it.

The experience of visiting a cinema is one of many we have taken for granted. The physical refuge of two to three hours in the dark, sharing a story with a multitude of strangers is the thing that first drew me to filmmaking. With that temporarily on pause, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on the power that film has. 

Joy has felt like a rare commodity for the last few weeks, found in surprising moments amidst the daily uncertainty, but movies never fail. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the way certain ones feel like hitting the refresh button on your soul. 

Here are five titles that taught me the importance of joy, and how we can find light in the every-day. 

Legally Blonde (2001)

In my life, there is no before or after ‘Legally Blonde’. Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods has always been there echoing that iconic mantra “What? Like it’s hard?” through my mind, no matter the scenario. Her inability to see negativity in the pursuit of joy is profoundly inspiring and encouraging and certainly feels pertinent at this time. She has an unlimited supply of kindness that pours itself into every aspect of her life, whether that be personal or professional. No matter the circumstance, she has an enchanting ability to fill every moment with light, and that isn’t limited to people in her immediate circle. It spreads to strangers, teachers, even people who have doubted her. All this is grounded in her strong moral compass and her need to help others. We are living through a time where we are relying on acts of kindness to pull us into a brighter future, and Elle Woods embodies this.

Just Mercy (2019)

Bryan Stevenson is the closest thing we have to a real-life superhero. Like Elle Woods, he is a graduate of Harvard Law School with a deep-rooted desire to help those in need. Just Mercy altered my perception of life and the limitations I put on kindness. ‘Just Mercy’s lead, Bryan (Michael B. Jordan), is relentless in his pursuit of justice. He never tires of putting the needs of others above his own, and though I’m sure in moments of quiet self-reflection he has his times of feeling overwhelmed, he awakes every morning to chase down the truth. “Hope is the enemy of injustice… hope is what will get you to stand up when people tell you to sit down.” For this reason, I choose to feel hopeful, it is a ripple effect that Stevenson has on those whose lives he has touched. There is a powerful bond between those with a shared experience, a sentiment embodied powerfully by the connection between Walter, Herbert and Anthony Ray. Despite its sobering themes of prejudice and inequities in the justice system, ‘Just Mercy‘ centres itself on its message of hope and the power of compassion.

20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women’ grounds itself in life’s big questions. Its entire ethos thrives on the idea that we are a collection of everyone who may ever cross our path, whether those encounters be positive or negative. Mike Mills, the film’s writer/director, built the lead character, Dorothea (Annette Bening), on the understanding he had of his mother. She’s vivacious and vibrant, wildly curious about everyone she meets, so much so that she invites them to dinner at her gloriously desolate home, so full of life, brimming with countless faces and anecdotes we’ll never uncover. It’s a chaotic, beautiful portrait of how life should be lived, incredibly difficult to watch without feeling a sense of lust for life. It reminds me of the inherent goodness people possess. Dorothea has this refreshing childlike wonder that she brings to every encounter, and though she is the oldest in every room and has lived a lot of life, her hunt for inspiration is admirable. “I want to see this modern world,” feels like an adage we can all relate to at this moment.

Tangled (2010)

Another personification of childlike joy existing in adulthood, and perhaps a very timely reference, is Rapunzel from Disney’s ‘Tangled’. There have been countless mentions over the last few weeks to her eighteen-year lockdown. I know that I’ll certainly be finding wonder in ordinary things such as “the grass, the dirt … and summer breeze when we find ourselves afforded the fortune of familiar freedom. Perhaps a lesson can be learned inside this seemingly saccharine children’s movie, that when this moment may pass, we will find new ways to appreciate the mundane. Similarly to Dorothea, Rapunzel has a way of embracing every stranger she meets. It is doubtful conversations with strangers on the tube will ever become the social norm, but I do wonder if future encounters will occur with a refreshed sense of intentionality. We can learn a lot through this time about the way we approach communication and connection. Weekly digital quizzes and online watch parties, these options were available to us before, and hopefully, this reminder of the importance of community will encourage them to become lasting habits.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019)

It is perhaps impossible to contemplate on themes of hope and kindness without stumbling upon a thought of beloved children’s TV show host, Mr. Rogers. With uncertainty rising and the seeming lack of good news, a quote in an interview with him feels more relevant than ever; “look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping.” Marielle Heller’s third feature showcases a dazzling performance from Tom Hanks in the role he was born to play, opposite a cynical Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) whose deep complexities may resonate with us more than ever amidst this global pandemic. Mr. Rogers’ patience and kindness is a practice; “if you think of him as a saint, then his way of being is unattainable.”  We have spent a lot of time with ourselves in the last few weeks and may have more to come in the months ahead. There has perhaps not been a more perfect season to meditate on the teachings of Mr. Rogers. 

I’m sure many titles will evoke a sense of joy in your heart. We are lucky to live through a time where storytelling is more personal than ever, and the unique and exciting aspect of movies is the ability to choose. I know that revisiting the above films remind me of goodness and hope and always set me back on the right path. I encourage you throughout this time to find those titles that feel like home and hold onto them, and hopefully, soon we’ll be invited back into unknown worlds to discover stories that are yet to be told.