Christmas Movie "Believe" Teaches Empathy to its Family-Friendly Audience

America needs more empathy.

em-pa-thy

noun

"the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Another way to define empathy? It’s the act of putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else. Empathy takes effort. After enduring a divided political season many hope to repair the relational rifts caused by righteous rebukes, debates, and ‘unfriendings.’ What's my encouragement? Grow your empathy. I’m often asked, "can empathy be grown in a person or are they just born with it?" Good news: the empathy center in the brain can be activated by our behavior. Empathy can grow.

It’s no secret that the United States is in need of some ‘uniting.' For many this past year seats at the table have been empty as conflict has not yet found its way to a resolution. How do we preserve the most important values that make us “one nation under God, indivisible…” and still take a stand for what we believe in?  Perhaps it’s time for some light-hearted laughter and good conversation. Maybe time to take your family to the movies for a good story as told by the makers of the film, Believe. 

This holiday season’s release of Believe written and directed by Billy Dickson, offers an invitation to flex our empathy muscles. Believe is about the intersection between rich and poor, good and bad, young and old, business owner and employee. You'll find a Christmas movie full of many twists and heart-warming turns. A cast of ordinary small-town heroes come together to overcome what might seem impossible. The goal? Overcome financial ruin, red tape, fires, and near death experiences to put on the community’s beloved Christmas Festival. Do they succeed? You’ll have to see for yourself. I’ll give you a hint to the essentials: joy, connection, community, truth, and of course—belief.

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There is good news for families heading to theaters for a holiday movie: Believe is a movie that an 8-year old and 88-year-old can attend together, a welcome treat in a long list of R-rated holiday releases. Ryan O'Quinn, who plays the lead character in the film, has said in multiple interviews that he wants to make the kind of films parents want to take their kids to, because he is one. Best known to comedy audiences from various sit-coms, viral videos and standup venues, he delivers a powerful career-making turn as the lead in the film. His standout performance of an every man type that goes on a journey to discover what family, faith and truth are all about, is not to be missed. O'Quinn's range of emotion along with solid, natural delivery proves that he can carry a film, regardless of genre. 

Believe is full of many unlikely connections, starring a relationship between the white middle-aged business owner and a joyful black child living in small-town poverty. Matthew Peyton (O’Quinn) is rescued from a fire by C.J. (Issac Ryan Brown, ABC's Blackish). Because of their serendipitous relationship, the story unfolds as an invitation to have hope when it seems all hope is lost. 

As Matthew is nursed to health by C.J. and his mother in their humble home, his empathy grows by literally stepping into the life of this family who lives much differently than he does. As unemployed and homeless citizens come to know Peyton and his kindness, their understanding for his experience grows. Here empathy and connection build new bridges. Together they unite to overcome evil and set the record straight. 

Issac Ryan Brown and Ryan O'Quinn

Issac Ryan Brown and Ryan O'Quinn

This is a faith-based Christian film at its heart, but the message is not heavy-handed as one might expect. Any plea to “believe” is broad, allowing space for your interpretation: belief in positive possibility, goodness, triumph over adversity, and in God’s help and provision. At times C.J.'s plea to simply "believe!” feels too simplistic, pointing to naive faith and hope for his magical dreams to come true. If you listen closely, a balance comes out through honest dialogue between the characters. For the child in the film belief is literal—he wants to be the angel Gabriel in the town pageant and supposes that if he believes, it will come true. Inspired by the earnest plea of a child, the adult characters in the film discuss that our belief will lead to a better outcome, but not always the literal manifestation of our willing and wishing. 

Whether through film, television, or literature a good storyteller invites us to change, to bend and understand a new perspective. In this story the relationships themselves cause transformation. Believe can be a launching point into deeper conversation for your family of movie-goers, too. As the story resolves on the screen, we learn that assumptions and impressions don’t tell the whole story. Without truly knowing the details and experiences of others, we lack the kind of understanding that curiosity and friendship can provide. 

Here are a few conversation starters to help your family or group have a great conversation after the movie. 

Do you believe that empathy has the power to activate unity? Believe is a sentimental Christmas film that shows us it can be done.