Every so often, even silver screen titles allow a bit of truth to poke through the thick layer of embellishment known all too well by modern filmmakers. Until recently, social work and all of its less-than-glamorous trappings were seen as far too “raw” to portray accurately on film. Thanks to a swing towards realism and a few committed production teams, however, the past two or three decades have produced dozens of films and documentaries that accurately portray social work in action.

Listed below are our top five picks for movies and documentaries that focus on social work and everything that comes with it. The following selection covers a range of important issues faced by social workers in communities across the nation. We also prioritized these films at the top because most of them offer an earnest, glamour-free look at the daily challenges and stressors faced by social workers.

The Beginning of Life

Like many documentaries, The Beginning of Life follows a mix of researchers (in this case neurologists and child psychology experts) as well as a number of participants out in the field. In exploring the bond between young children and the people around them, particularly their primary caregivers, this film emphasizes the importance of strong and stable relationships for kids.

The documentary explores several dynamics related to child development, such as the importance of a nuclear family structure, changing perceptions of the fatherly role, the child’s ability to absorb and apply information through parental influence, and so on.

How does this movie contribute to the sociological perspective? In many ways, it greatly expands upon what we already understand about healthy development. It applies a well-established sociological construct, attachment theory, to a modern world. It informs the audience of the importance of simply being present as parents, actively listening to our children and allowing them to explore within safe parameters.

On an individual level, this collection of insights and stories can transform a struggling relationship between caregiver and child into a flourishing one. On a societal level, it takes aim at the many foundational issues arising from improper development: delinquency, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships and so on.

Precious

One of the most popularly acclaimed films surrounding social concepts to date, Precious even nudged its way past many of the typically outperforming action films released around the same time (2009). The film was widely lauded for its realistic and unapologetic portrayal of a severely dysfunctional family living in a New York City project.

The story follows Precious, a teenage girl living with her welfare-abusing mother and multiple children. Both her father – who has left the family – and mother have sexually and physically abused Precious, and her mother continues to do so regularly. With the help of a social worker, Precious is able to find a safe haven with her newborn and begin pursuing her GED.

This film offers a number of particularly striking insights that pertain to the world of social work. First and foremost, it’s important to note that Precious was initially hesitant to report her mother, despite the severe abuse she and her child were experiencing. This represents a very common problem faced by social workers whose job it is to screen families for abuse. The film also offers an unfiltered look at the problems surrounding the welfare system. Precious’ mother is always worried about losing her eligibility, and so refuses to take steps that would otherwise help the family thrive. Also, Precious herself is seen stealing food because she and her family are destitute.

Alive Inside

Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s “Audience Award,” Alive Inside offers a very interesting and salient solution to epidemic-level mental health issues. This documentary follows Dan Cohen, social worker and creator of Music & Memory, an organization that uses music to enhance memory recall for people affected with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory loss issues.

In the documentary, Cohen and a small cast of neurologists and music experts showcase several cases from around the country in which severely affected patients show significant improvements after just a few minutes of listening to music. The effects are almost immediately apparent for viewers, and the asides from neurologists confirm what’s happening: even the severely degenerated brain can still associate memories with music.

This film offers an illuminating perspective into the world of the institutionalized patient – memory loss or not. It hints strongly at a need for reform in the way that this huge population is managed within the prescription-peddling healthcare system, in which social workers are intertwined. Most of all, it reminds us that those affected with Alzheimer’s and dementia can still hear, understand and remember, and that they need to be treated with the same respect as those without the condition.

The Hand That Feeds

Virtually every major city in the United States has been touched in some way or another by the issue presented in The Hand That Feeds, a film focused on the plight of undocumented migrant workers. This movie follows a small kitchen crew working at a cafe in Upper East New York. Though the cafe and staff seem well-maintained and personable on the surface, the workers struggle with sub-par wages, hazardous conditions and blackmailing managers who fire them for little to no reason. Mahoma Lopez, a sandwich chef at the cafe, partners with the kitchen crew and several organizations to fight for a livable wage and better working conditions.

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, this film exposed a number of pressing concerns facing the more than eight million people working illegally in the United States. These workers are often subjected to the worst conditions, and they aren’t protected by insurance or other benefits when disaster strikes. Social workers have to be mindful of this extra set of limitations when navigating action plans with their clients.

Who Cares About Kelsey?

This documentary made our list because of how deeply it delves into a single person’s journey from a life of juvenile delinquency to a much more fulfilling one. The subject of the film, Kelsey Carroll, has endured abuse, an alcoholic mother and ADHD. She was punished at school for selling drugs, and she can be heard engaging negative thought patterns throughout the first half of the film. Eventually, with the help of several positive influences within her family, friends and school faculty, she was able to abandon many of her self-harming habits and start working on more productive ones.

This film is essentially a case study for social workers – it’s highly relevant to the field because of the very common issues that Kelsey goes through. Not only does it expose the types of problems that many social workers face on a daily basis, but it also highlights a solution. As the viewer, you get a personal tour of Kelsey’s support network. You get more insights about her from people close to her, and you can watch her navigate her problems with the help of her support network.

Supporting accurate, realistic films such as these is an excellent way for those in the social work realm to learn more about the social forces that drive behavior while also spreading awareness about some of the world’s most prevalent problems. These films weren’t selected because of their critical acclaim, but because they capture what Hollywood so often fails to: an unattractive, unfiltered look at the true human condition.

Tim Kalantjankos

B.S. Sociology | University of Nebraska at Omaha

A.S. Physical Therapy | Clarkson College

September 2019

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