The Best Foster Care Movies

presented by j + cj:

last summer, we presented a list of the Best Adoption Movies. and though there were definitely some entries we left off that we’ll have to go back and add in one day, we also realized that we should create a list of the Best Foster Care movies.

i actually found way more movies to include on this list than i thought i would. also, like with our adoption movies list, this isn’t necessarily about U.S. foster care or the foster care system, but the principles of foster care. also, this post is rife with spoiler alerts if you haven’t seen these. but i don’t think any of the spoilers i’ve included will diminish your ability to enjoy (and learn from) the films.

so here they are…

TV Honorable Mentions: 30 Rock & The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

30 Rock mentions foster care a surprising amount of times when you consider the fact that it was a prime time sitcom. one of the lead characters, Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan), reveals in the first episode that he grew up in foster care – a fact that gets referenced again and again throughout the show’s six seasons. and though foster care is usually mentioned as part of a gag, it does so with respect, and certainly raises more awareness that anyone can come out of a broken home, even a celebrity.

though Will Smith (played by Will Smith) of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air isn’t in the foster care system officially, the fact is that he is being raised by his aunt and uncle when it is deemed that his home ‘hood of Philly is too unsafe for him (there’s a whole song about it). one of the most powerful and authentic moments in the series happens when Will’s father ditches him for the upteenth time, leading Will to emotionally break down to his Uncle Phil and ask the question, “Why doesn’t he want me?” – the cry of almost every child in foster care.

Dishonorable Mention: Grave of the Fireflies
not dishonorable because it’s bad – quite the opposite. dishonorable in the sense of “don’t do foster care like this.” Grave of the Fireflies is an excellent animated drama about two children in Japan during the end of World War II who must go to live with their aunt, who lets them know from day one how “generous” it is of her to let them live with her and that they must pull their own weight or suffer reproach. too often, our society treats foster children as burdens, and that’s exactly what we see happen in this film. the story is a steady downward spiral for these two kids, and no one ever lends a hand to help them, though their pain is in plain sight.

11. Angels in the Outfield

this movie is remembered these days for spawning Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career. what gets forgotten is that the heart of the film is the story of a boy in foster care, living in a foster home, praying that God would get him out of foster care and back with his deadbeat absentee father. the film even features his caseworker as a prominent character. regardless of its legacy as a film, it was a pretty daring idea to feature the world of foster care so prominently in a family film.

10. Project Nim

This documentary film that looks at the life of a chimpanzee who was the center of a study about animal-human communication. the big takeaway from Nim is this: if moving from home-to-home, caretaker-to-caretaker is so damaging for a chimpanzee…then what do you think it does for a human child? Project Nim points out the need for stability not just for animals, but for humans – and from the standpoint of foster care, shows why foster kids need to be in permanent homes in order to thrive. P.S. not suitable to watch with your child, despite cute picture of chimpanzee above.

9. The Amazing Spider-Man

we all know the story of Spider-Man. but most of us don’t stop to think about the fact that he too is being fostered by his aunt and uncle. one of the things that i found so interesting about this reboot was Peter’s desire to learn more about his parents, his desire to be connected to them again – something common for all foster & adopted children. also, it is Uncle Ben’s moral fiber and loving discipline that always helps Peter to be able to choose to do the right thing – even when it is very hard, and even when it means having to give something up that he wants very much.

8. Tsotsi

this South African film tells the very interesting story of a troubled teenager who hijacks a car – only to discover when he gets home that there’s a baby in it. over the next few days, he becomes the foster parent for the child, having to figure out both how to take care of the baby and get it back to its rightful parent without also having to face the repercussions of his crime. but as he cares for the child, he starts to change. there’s a powerful message here for foster parents: taking care of someone else’s child will force you to look at yourself and re-assess who you are. it will expose your weaknesses, your faults, and the motives behind why you do the things you do.

7. Moonrise Kingdom

one of the things i liked most about Wes Anderson’s 2012 film was the fact that the main character, Sam, was a boy in foster care with – er – rather indifferent foster parents. also, Sam’s survival skills and fierce individuality reminded me so much of some of the kids that i have worked with. there’s lots of interesting stuff here, but probably better if you just watch it for yourself – even if you find it a bit weird. it’s supposed to be that way. after all, foster care is pretty weird too.

6. The Wizard of Oz

in the classic film, we never learn the circumstances of how Dorothy ended up in the care of her aunt and uncle (lots of fostering aunts and uncles in cinema – don’t ask me why). but we know that she is restless and wants to be anywhere but under their care, believing that the grass is greener elsewhere. this is so true of so many kids i’ve worked with – they are in safe, loving environments, but because of the trauma they have faced, they are unable to see that, trust that, or be grateful for it. but sometimes – like Dorothy – they are able to learn that home is not a geographic location so much as it is the place where you are loved. an important lesson for all of us, i think.

5. Lilo & Stitch

one of Disney’s most original concepts, the title character Lilo is a troubled Hawaiian girl on the verge of being removed from her older sister’s care and placed in foster care. the movie deals with this very serious issue in a sympathetic fashion – sympathetic both towards Lilo’s situation and Nani’s struggles to provide a good home. and, of course, enter Stitch, a destructive, blue, test-tube created alien on the run from galactic authorities. sounds heart-warming, right? and yet that’s exactly what the movie turns out to be in teaching us that family is about “leaving no one behind.” it helps shed a compassionate light on the pre-removal process and shows that not all kids get removed because their caretakers are raging, drunk, kid-beaters.

4. Star Wars

no, this isn’t included just for the nerds. most wouldn’t see Star Wars as a foster care story, but when you look close enough, that’s what it is. Luke grows up under the careful eyes of his aunt and uncle, the latter who has always been afraid that Luke would turn out like his dad (insert Darth Vader music here). and like many foster kids, Luke is restless, wanting to get away – and fascinated by the mystery of his absent father. and it is the influence of a benign mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, that gives him the strength he needs both to step out of his comfort zone and to also not fall back into the mistakes of his father. foster kids need good mentors – even fantasy ones.

3. Les Miserables

some might argue this is more about adoption, but keep in mind that because of his, well, less-than-legal status, Jean Valjean can never legally adopt Cosette. Jean (played by the Wolverine) first vows to take care of her as a moral obligation without ever meeting her – but once he has her in his life, she becomes his reason to keep going despite all of his trials. and though Cosette is old-enough to know that Jean is not her father, she affectionately learns to call him “Papa.” this is a picture of foster care at its best – a bond forged between two strangers who, in some way or other, need each other.

2. Precious

this hard-to-watch movie shows why foster care is needed. Precious is the story of a teenage girl who has been abused in pretty much every way that you can possibly think of. first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe turned in a believable and Oscar-nominated performance as Precious, and her co-star Mo’Nique actually won an Oscar playing her abusive mother. the movie doesn’t flinch in terms of the abuse that modern poverty breeds, nor in the abilities of some to abuse the system. we don’t want to give away too much about this film, but warn you that it is very graphic and you should have tissues handy when you watch.

1. Short Term 12

easily the best film representation of foster care that we’ve ever seen. though it’s not always easy to watch, Short Term 12 takes a realistic look inside a group home for foster youths. it focuses on one of the supervisors, Grace (played beautifully by Brie Larson), who is herself a victim of abuse and whose past comes rushing back into her life when she meets a young girl who reminds her all too much of herself. her boyfriend, Mason, is a product of foster care, and supports her the best he can while also helping take care of the kids they work with. the young actors who play the kids are just as good as the adult actors, to the point that i felt like i had worked with many of them in real life. a powerful film that should not be missed by anyone considering foster care.

if you know of another film that should be on this list, let us know! most of them are fairly easy to find if you want to check them out for yourself.

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