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Forget the Oscars — the Greater Goodies honor Ten Films that Highlight the Growth Mindset, Resilience, Purpose and more


Everyone’s talk­ing about yesterday’s Acad­e­my Awards—and so we thought we’d give out our own ver­sion of the Oscars, the Greater Good­ies.

Where­as the Acad­e­my of Motion Pic­ture Arts and Sci­ences rec­og­nizes achieve­ments in act­ing, direct­ing, edit­ing, and so on, the Greater Good staff picked our win­ners for their abil­i­ty to illus­trate spe­cif­ic keys to human well-being, such as growth mind­set, resiliencepur­pose, and for­give­ness.

Some of the movies are action-filled block­busters, like Won­der Woman or Star Wars: The Last Jedi; oth­ers are qui­et inde­pen­dent films like The Flori­da Project and Lady Bird. We hope the Greater Good­ies help you see all of these films in a new light—and per­haps you can apply their insights to your own life. 

The Purpose Award: Coco

By now, it’s well-rec­og­nized that, broad­ly speak­ing, Pixar Ani­ma­tion Stu­dios pro­duces two kinds of films: the one that sells a lot of toys (like the Cars and Mon­sters fran­chis­es) and the kind that use ani­ma­tion and sto­ry­telling to res­onate with grown-ups.

The 2017 film Coco falls into the grown-up camp: The young, tal­ent­ed gui­tar hero trav­els between the worlds of the liv­ing and the dead in order to uncov­er clues about his family’s old and com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with music. The sto­ry has plot twists that even few adults will see com­ing, and ulti­mate­ly the film unites sev­er­al themes straight out of Greater Good, such as find­ing for­give­ness for those we think have harmed us (spoil­er: those peo­ple aren’t always who we think they are).

But we are giv­ing Coco a Greater Goody because it reveals the pow­er of long-term, mean­ing­ful goals to shape our lives. Miguel, the 12-year-old pro­tag­o­nist, is dri­ven to become a musi­cian. Thanks to a tragedy, Miguel must keep his love for music a secret from his family—until he tells them that he wish­es to play at the Día de Muer­tos tal­ent show. When his abueli­ta breaks his gui­tar and for­bids him to play, Miguel announces that he no longer wants to be a part of the fam­i­ly and runs away.

Des­per­ate to play in the tal­ent show that evening, Miguel breaks into the mau­soleum of a town musi­cal leg­end to bor­row his gui­tar. This trig­gers a series of trans­for­ma­tions that brings Miguel to the land of the dead.

Accord­ing to psy­chol­o­gist William Damon, “pur­pose is a part of one’s per­son­al search for mean­ing, but it also [includes] the desire to make a dif­fer­ence in the world, to con­tribute to mat­ters larg­er than the self.” For Miguel, his inten­tion to become a musi­cian is guid­ed by his yearn­ing to con­nect to his ances­tors, and this goal leads him to resolve a long­stand­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing about his ances­tors, ensur­ing that their true iden­ti­ties are known and their mem­o­ries sur­vive.

When he returns to his (liv­ing) fam­i­ly, Miguel’s love for music becomes a means to con­nect his fam­i­ly mem­bers across time and dis­tance. “Our love for each oth­er will live on for­ev­er in every beat of my proud corazón,” he sings. — Maryam Abdul­lah and Jesse Antin

The Growth Mindset Award: The Last Jedi

The lat­est episode in the ongo­ing Star Wars saga is all about fail­ure.

The most inter­est­ing thing you can say about fail­ure in The Last Jedi is we don’t see a lot of nice, safe blun­ders, where every­one learns a valu­able les­son after­ward. No, these are bloody, emo­tion­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing fail­ures, of a kind that many peo­ple can­not live with. Poe Dameron’s mis­takes kill hun­dreds of his com­rades. Luke Sky­walk­er fails Kylo Ren in every way a men­tor can, which leads direct­ly to the deaths of his best friend Han Solo and (lit­er­al­ly) mil­lions of oth­er people—a fail­ure that he unspar­ing­ly links to the his­to­ry of the Jedi Order. Even the vil­lains can’t catch a break: Supreme Leader Snoke, Gen­er­al Hux, and Ren him­self all fail at some point. Yes, Ren ris­es to rule the First Order—only to be humil­i­at­ed on the bat­tle­field by Sky­walk­er.

How each of these char­ac­ters responds to fail­ure reveals a lot about them. When defeat­ed, Ren breaks out his lightsaber and mind­less­ly destroys whatever’s with­in reach. His coun­ter­part, Rey, embod­ies a dif­fer­ent approach, one of our favorite social-sci­en­tif­ic con­structs here at Greater Goodthe growth mind­set. “In a growth mind­set, peo­ple believe that their most basic abil­i­ties can be devel­oped through ded­i­ca­tion and hard work—brains and tal­ent are just the start­ing point,” writes psy­chol­o­gist Car­ol Dweck.

Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mas­tery. But weak­ness, fol­ly, fail­ure also. Yes, fail­ure most of all. The great­est teacher, fail­ure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true bur­den of all mas­ters.” — Jedi Mas­ter Yoda

When we met Rey in the pre­vi­ous movie, The Force Awak­ens, she was a lost and emo­tion­al­ly needy kid. In The Last Jedi, she is learn­ing from her mis­takes and she is start­ing to dis­cov­er what she is tru­ly capa­ble of. Though she is the galaxy’s most pow­er­ful Jedi since Anakin Sky­walk­er, Rey is also hum­ble, in a way that makes her dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from the oth­er (ahem, male) heroes of Star Wars. “I need some­one to show me my place in all of this,” she tells Luke at one point. “I felt some­thing. It awak­ened, but now I need to know how to wield it.” We spend much of the movie watch­ing Rey train and strive to under­stand her­self.

As usu­al, it falls to Jedi Mas­ter Yoda to sum up the mes­sage of the movie: “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mas­tery. But weak­ness, fol­ly, fail­ure also. Yes, fail­ure most of all. The great­est teacher, fail­ure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true bur­den of all mas­ters.” — Jere­my Adam Smith

The Common Humanity Award: Wonder

Aug­gie Pull­man was born with a cran­io­fa­cial con­di­tion. In Won­der, we see him make the tran­si­tion from a sweet­ly pro­tect­ed, home-schooled, med­ical-pro­ce­dure-laden life to the unpre­dictable and social­ly intense envi­ron­ment of a very well-inten­tioned pri­vate mid­dle school—and ulti­mate­ly inspire the whole place for the bet­ter.

In the begin­ning, Auggie’s chal­lenge is over­whelm­ing awk­ward­ness. Peo­ple star­tle at first glance, then respond with any­thing from sac­cha­rine kind­ness to fear to demean­ing hos­til­i­ty. To Aug­gie, all of it feels like an unwant­ed spot­light. When his dot­ing elder sis­ter Via, just start­ing high school her­self, attempts to com­mis­er­ate with him by shar­ing her own trou­bles, he shouts: “Bad days? Bad days? Do peo­ple avoid touch­ing you? When peo­ple acci­den­tal­ly touch you, do they call it the plague?”

A cou­ple of enlight­ened adults and kids at the school, how­ev­er, shift the tide. The embar­rass­ing-dad-joke school prin­ci­pal Mr. Tush­man wins over Auggie’s trust with dorky humil­i­ty and a com­mon inter­est in sci­ence. His hip­ster his­to­ry teacher sets an authen­tic and heart­felt tone with mat­ter-of-fact kind­ness and assigned reflec­tions on human­is­tic philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples. Class­mates Jack and Sum­mer, some­how sens­ing the unfair­ness and injus­tice he faces, see and tru­ly befriend Aug­gie for who he is. Oth­er school­mates fall in line, no longer treat­ing Aug­gie like he’s weird. The once-harsh school bul­lies even end up defend­ing Aug­gie from big­ger bul­lies, and they come to embrace him as their “lit­tle guy.”

When Aug­gie wins the big end-of-the-year, per­son-who-changed-the-world-for-the-bet­ter school award at grad­u­a­tion, it’s a tear­ful tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of com­mon human­i­ty. — Emil­iana Simon-Thomas

The Resilience Award: Call Me by Your Name

When 17-year-old Elio Perl­man first meets doc­tor­al stu­dent Oliv­er, they don’t seem to like each oth­er very much—and when they part, it’s in pain. Call Me by Your Name is about what hap­pens in between those two events, as Elio and Oliv­er fall in love amid the crum­bling, sun-drenched beau­ty of Lom­bardy, Italy.

Along the way, we learn a great deal about resilience. In the sev­en-minute scene that clos­es the movie, a dev­as­tat­ed Elio sits star­ing into a fire as tears roll down his face—but we know he’s going to be fine. Why?

Main­ly because Elio is far from iso­lat­ed. His father knows before Elio does that he is falling in love with Oliv­er. Rather than inter­ven­ing or lec­tur­ing, Dr. Perl­man watch­es and waits—and keeps up the con­nec­tion to his son, even when the teenag­er pulls away.

Nature has cun­ning ways of find­ing our weak­est spot,” he says at one point, know­ing that soon­er or lat­er we all take a hit. In their strik­ing final scene togeth­er, father approach­es son with the truth as com­pas­sion­ate­ly as pos­si­ble, reveal­ing that he knew about the affair and gen­tly encour­ag­ing Elio to gain some per­spec­tive. “He was good, and you were both lucky to have found each oth­er, because…you too are good,” he says. He adds:

I may have come close, but I nev­er had what you two have. Some­thing always held me back or stood in the way. How you live your life is your busi­ness, just remem­ber, our hearts and our bod­ies are giv­en to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sor­row, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt.

It’s the very con­nec­tion with his father that helps Elio weath­er heart­break, but the con­tent of Dr. Perlman’s mes­sage mat­ters, too. Suf­fer­ing is a part of life, he tells his son—and so is joy, plea­sure, and love. We grow stronger when we allow our­selves to feel and remem­ber all of it. — Jere­my Adam Smith

The Socially Intelligent Power Award: The Darkest Hour

At the begin­ning of The Dark­est Hour—and there’s real­ly no nice way to say this—Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill is an enti­tled, rul­ing-class jerk. He’s nasty to peo­ple with less pow­er than him, detached from their suf­fer­ing, and unable to per­suade oth­ers because he can­not put him­self in their shoes. As he shouts to an under­ling: “Will you stop inter­rupt­ing me while I am inter­rupt­ing you!”

In many ways, this Churchill embod­ies the way Greater Good Sci­ence Center’s cofounder Dacher Kel­ter con­ceives of pow­er. “The skills most impor­tant to obtain­ing pow­er and lead­ing effec­tive­ly are the very skills that dete­ri­o­rate once we have pow­er,” he writes in his essay, “The Pow­er Para­dox.” Keltner’s solu­tions are the ones Churchill must adopt in order to save the troops at Dunkirk: He learns to lis­ten and to empathize, how­ev­er imper­fect­ly.

In the film’s telling, Churchill is sur­round­ed by men who are very much like him­self: rich, high-born, edu­cat­ed, pow­er­ful. These men, it turns out, are much more sym­pa­thet­ic to fas­cism that the rest of the British pub­lic, and they con­tin­u­al­ly urge Churchill to make peace with Hitler and Mus­soli­ni.

The film piv­ots around a scene (appar­ent­ly apoc­ryphal) when Churchill ven­tures into the Lon­don Under­ground to talk about the war with work­ing-class women and men. Through a series of ques­tions, he dis­cov­ers they are will­ing to make the sac­ri­fices nec­es­sary to stop fas­cism. This focus-group knowl­edge strength­ens his resolve, but he must still find the skills to per­suade the king, his cab­i­net, and par­lia­ment to fight back against the Axis pow­ers instead of sur­ren­der­ing.

The rest, as they say, is his­to­ry. Churchill is no doubt defi­cient as a poster child for our con­cep­tion of pow­er as some­thing that must be exer­cised with empa­thy and account­abil­i­ty. And yet, no oth­er film in the past year made the case for social­ly respon­si­ble pow­er quite so force­ful­ly. Churchill is flawed—and his hero­ism aris­es from his tri­umph over his own worst instincts.

As Churchill’s wife Clemen­tine tells him: “You are strong because you are imper­fect. You are wise because you have doubts.” — Jere­my Adam Smith

The Empathy Award: The Florida Project

The children of <em>The Florida Project</em>.

The chil­dren of The Flori­da Project

In the grit­ty, doc­u­men­tary-like Flori­da Project, pre­co­cious six-year-old chil­dren run through fields and aban­doned build­ings around a motel-slum where they live, called “The Mag­ic Cas­tle.” Direc­tor Sean Bak­er jux­ta­pos­es their irre­press­ible ener­gy and joy with scenes of pover­ty and chaos, all with­in a mile of Dis­ney World. Through this vivid, haunt­ing por­tray­al of a com­mu­ni­ty of fam­i­lies liv­ing in the run-down Mag­ic Cas­tle, the film explores empa­thy on sev­er­al lev­els.

I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” says young Moonee to her friend Scooty. They are secret­ly watch­ing Moonee’s moth­er, who sells per­fume and her body in order to sur­vive. Through­out the film, we won­der how much of her mother’s des­per­ate life Moonee understands—and this moment reveals that she under­stands and feels more than she prob­a­bly should.

Moonee has at least one adult in the film who tries to take care of her. Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed Willem Dafoe plays a some­what inef­fec­tu­al hotel man­ag­er, Bob­by, who watch­es over the sin­gle moth­ers and chil­dren in the build­ing with an empath­ic, pro­tec­tive gaze. Bob­by doesn’t say a lot, and so Dafoe must con­vey his empa­thy through his eyes, ges­tures, and actions. You feel both his com­pas­sion and his help­less­ness as he bears wit­ness to the strug­gles of the kids on the prop­er­ty (while like­ly grap­pling with his own pri­vate and per­son­al fail­ures).

There are only a few movies that have moved me so deeply that I sobbed after watch­ing them. This was one. This is a film­mak­er who rep­re­sents peo­ple liv­ing in pover­ty with bal­ance, truth­ful­ness, and imag­i­na­tive vision. Bak­er doesn’t strive to elic­it sym­pa­thy or pat-on-the-head pity; he leads us to feel deeply with these characters—through the children’s eyes, most of all. — Amy L. Eva

The Forgiveness Award: Lady Bird

How can a movie that focus­es on the con­flicts between a moth­er and her teenage daugh­ter fill us with inspi­ra­tion? Lady Bird does it.

In the film, the pro­tag­o­nist Lady Bird—a name she gives herself—discovers her own iden­ti­ty and goals by tak­ing cre­ative risks, test­ing friend­ships, and explor­ing her bud­ding sex­u­al­i­ty. Con­flict aris­es when her dis­traught moth­er finds it dif­fi­cult to sup­port her choic­es. The movie is filled with scenes when moth­er and daugh­ter argue past each oth­er, not able to embrace their clear con­nec­tion.

The movie touch­es on many of Greater Good‘s themes—but espe­cial­ly the impor­tance of for­give­ness. In one instance, Lady Bird dates and falls in love with a boy whom she lat­er finds out is gay. While angri­ly con­fronting him over his decep­tion, he col­laps­es in tears, express­ing his fears of com­ing out to his Catholic par­ents. As Lady Bird com­forts him, you see for­give­ness dawn­ing, paving the way for them to remain friends.

In anoth­er instance, Lady Bird befriends a group of pop­u­lar girls at school to get clos­er to a boy she likes. This cre­ates ten­sion between her and her best friend, who is not pop­u­lar and resents being pushed aside. Even­tu­al­ly, Lady Bird real­izes it’s not fun to have to pre­tend you’re some­one you’re not, and she miss­es her old friend. After see­ing her mis­take and ask­ing for for­give­ness, the two rec­on­cile and repair their relationship—even attend­ing the prom togeth­er.

Mean­while, the con­flict between moth­er and daugh­ter con­tin­ues to boil through­out the film. At one point, Lady Bird tells her moth­er, “I just wish… I wish that you liked me.” To which her moth­er replies, “Of course I love you.” In that gap between “like” and “love,” we see how moth­er and daugh­ter mis­un­der­stand each other—a scene punc­tu­at­ed with a closed door and the mother’s hes­i­ta­tion to knock at that door and try again.

But, as Lady Bird learns to see her mother’s strug­gles, she comes to real­ize that her mother’s resis­tance to change is a cov­er for love and con­cern. At the end, Lady Bird for­gives her moth­er and open­ly thanks her for her many sac­ri­fices. — Jill Sut­tie

The Nonviolent Heroism Award: The Shape of Water

In an ordi­nary Amer­i­can movie, Colonel Richard Strick­land would be the hero.

He’s the hard-charg­ing chief of secu­ri­ty at a top-secret gov­ern­ment facil­i­ty at the height of the Cold War. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he is trag­i­cal­ly deformed by a sys­tem that does not val­ue life, human and oth­er­wise.

Instead of Strick­land, the hero of The Shape of Water is a mute clean­ing woman named Elisa Espos­i­to. She devel­ops a secret con­nec­tion with an amphibi­ous crea­ture that Strick­land drags back from a South Amer­i­can black lagoon—one that blos­soms into an unlike­ly transspecies romance.

Espos­i­to is pow­er­less and mar­gin­al in this alter­nate Amer­i­ca. But when the name­less crea­ture is threat­ened with vivi­sec­tion, she joins forces with two friends and a dis­si­dent Sovi­et spy to get him home. There is some vio­lence in The Shape of Water, but none of the inci­dents are hero­ic. Amer­i­can and Sovi­et agents kill each oth­er in ways that feel sense­less and lone­ly, while the true heroes of the film—a mute Lati­na, a black jan­i­tor, and a gay com­mer­cial artist—achieve their aims through coop­er­a­tion and non­vi­o­lence.

The Shape of Water doesn’t always make sense. (For exam­ple, what’s up with that sex scene in the bath­room?) And yet, like many of direc­tor Guiller­mo del Toro’s films, it’s dri­ven by intense dream-log­ic and vivid images. This makes it feel more like a fable, a type of sto­ry that uses non-human crea­tures to con­vey a spe­cif­ic moral.

What is the moral of the movie? In The Crea­ture from the Black Lagoon—the 1954 hor­ror film that inspired this one—the entire plot depends on a two-fist­ed straight white guy res­cu­ing the girl from a mon­strous fish-man. In The Shape of Water, some­one very much like that guy (Strick­land) is the vil­lain, and his defeat allows the crea­ture and “the girl” (Espos­i­to, actu­al­ly a grown woman) to final­ly come togeth­er.

In this way, the film teach­es that we should respond to dif­fer­ences with curios­i­ty, not fear. The moral of the sto­ry is clear, sim­ple, and more impor­tant than ever: Love is stronger than vio­lence and hate. — Jere­my Adam Smith

The Community and Diversity Award: Wonder Woman and Black Panther (tie)

Though one movie comes from the Mar­vel Uni­verse and the oth­er from DC, Black Pan­therand Won­der Woman have one big thing in com­mon: They are both about the rela­tion­ship of homoge­nous, iso­lat­ed utopi­an com­mu­ni­ties to the wider, more com­pli­cat­ed world.

The super­pow­ered Won­der Woman comes from The­mysci­ra, home to an immor­tal race of Ama­zons who appear to spend their end­less days swing­ing swords, shoot­ing arrows, and rid­ing hors­es. They were cre­at­ed by the god Zeus to pro­tect human­i­ty, but it seems they’ve become just a bit too com­fort­able in their par­adise.

Black Pan­ther is set in Wakan­da, a geo­graph­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed region in Cen­tral Africa that was hit, once upon a time, by a mag­ic mete­or. The benev­o­lent radi­a­tion from its met­al mutates the flo­ra, fau­na, and pos­si­bly the peo­ple; this spurs sci­en­tif­ic and engi­neer­ing devel­op­ment that makes Wakan­da the most tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced nation on Earth. No one knows this because—as in the case of Themyscira—Wakanda devel­ops phys­i­cal cam­ou­flage and a pol­i­cy of rad­i­cal iso­la­tion in order to avoid Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion.

The­mysci­ra and Wakan­da both illus­trate how impor­tant com­mu­ni­ty is to human well-being—and in many ways, these real­ly are good soci­eties whose mem­bers feel safe, cared for, and con­nect­ed to each oth­er. But both utopias pay a cost for their sta­bil­i­ty: They start to fall apart when out­side influ­ences arrive in the form of Cap­tain Steve Trevor in Won­der Woman and Kill­mon­ger in Black Pan­ther.

In this way, these two super­hero movies have a lot to say about the ten­sion between com­mu­ni­ty and diver­si­ty. And in the end, they both make the same choice. Wakan­da decides to end its iso­la­tion, grow beyond itself, and work to make the rest of the world a bet­ter place. Won­der Woman decides that she can­not stay on The­mysci­ra. Instead, she becomes a part of “man’s world,” kick­ing and punch­ing evil wher­ev­er she finds it. As T’Challa, the king of Wakan­da, says at the thought­ful con­clu­sion of Black Pan­ther:

Wakan­da will no longer watch from the shad­ows. We can not. We must not. We will work to be an exam­ple of how we, as broth­ers and sis­ters on this earth, should treat each oth­er. Now, more than ever, the illu­sions of divi­sion threat­en our very exis­tence. We all know the truth: More con­nects us than sep­a­rates us. But in times of cri­sis the wise build bridges, while the fool­ish build bar­ri­ers. We must find a way to look after one anoth­er, as if we were one sin­gle tribe.

Black Pan­ther and Won­der Woman want to change the world—but the real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion is this: How will the world con­tin­ue to change their home­lands? — Jere­my Adam Smith

What films would you hon­or for reveal­ing what’s best in human­i­ty?

Greater Good staff and writ­ers Jere­my Adam Smith, Maryam Abdul­lah, Jesse Antin, Amy L. Eva, Emil­iana R. Simon-Thomas and Jill Sut­tie authored this arti­cle. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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