Lights... DVD... ACTION!

Nothing brings the family together for relaxed fun and focused conversation quite like a good flick.

Once a week for the last 20 years, Jim and Diane Hostetler and their seven children, ages 23 to 5, have enjoyed “Family Movie Night” in the comfort of their home in Steubenville, Ohio.

Each week, they pick a theme and, whether or not it can be tied to an aspect of their Catholic faith, the entertainment always provides fodder for fruitful discussion. And the shared experience gives the parents an “in” to the kids’ hearts and minds on matters of morality, virtue and the sanctity of life.

“After the movie,” explains Diane, “we sit and ask questions like ‘Why would you be allowed or not allowed to do that in our house?’” She adds that, sometimes, the conversation continues beyond the night of the movie and into the days that follow.

What the Hostetlers ably demonstrate, nearly every Catholic family can easily emulate. Perhaps more should, given the recent studies connecting family “together time” with good outcomes for kids — and the studies showing a decline in the number of American families who regularly sit together for supper.

As any parent knows, kids often like to watch their favorite movies several times over. Jim Hostetler says this can be a good thing. He cites as an example Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning 1981 true story of two athletes preparing for, and competing in, the 1924 Olympics. All the Hostetlers enjoy it, says Jim, who appreciates how artistically it contrasts a main character who is humble, perseverant and honorable, with a rival who is driven purely by pride.

The Hostetlers’ “movie habit” gets two thumbs up from Father John Riley, pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Spotsylvania, Va. Father Riley, who holds a degree in movie production and direction, promotes virtue-building movies to his parishioners.

“Film can fire the imagination,” says the priest. “If viewed in a controlled environment once a week or so, it’s great.”

Father Riley suggests the best place to start is with the classics, which kids will actually adjust to once they begin watching. “Frank Capra is a great guy for virtue,” he says.

Register film critic Steven Greydanus points out that kids can even enjoy films from the silent era. “Watching silent films with children is like exposing them to another culture — it broadens their horizons, expands their imagination, enriches their inner world,” he wrote in a recent essay. “It instills in them at an early age an appreciation of a medium that many adults have lost the ability to appreciate.”

Greydanus speaks from experience. He and his wife, Suzanne, show their children good DVDs by the crateful as a matter of family formation and to help Dad do his job.

Discover Timeless Treasures

For classics rich in the virtues, Father Riley ticks off Days of Wine and Roses for temperance, 12 Angry Men for justice, and A Man for All Seasons about St. Thomas More for prudence and justice. “Thomas More’s objective was not to be a martyr, but to be faithful to what is right,” he says. “And that is ultimately God’s will.”

“It’s always a wonderful surprise for the kids to identify the Christian themes and symbolism,” says Jim Hostetler, whose family has built a library of videotaped films they can watch repeatedly. A look at their collection will reveal a taste for stories that stand up well to multiple viewings: Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet and the Black, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia series, and The Spitfire Grill.

Hostetler says his family’s DVD library got its foundation when they plumbed the riches of the Ignatius Press video catalog, discovering movies that “helped us grow as converts for our own education as well as for our children.” He points to early entries such as The Bells of St. Mary’s and The Reluctant Saint.

In Cupertino, Calif., Legionary of Christ Father Chad Wahl drew from his youth ministry to launch Flic2 (“Flic Squared”) for young men. A fine-arts major before entering seminary, Father Wahl encourages his charges to see through movies’ methods to get to their messages.

“Once the message is in front of us, we analyze it,” he says. “Should we accept or reject it? The most important thing is to form a critical sense in the mind.”

Father Wahl often leads discussions of the movies the young men are seeing on their own, as those are the ones forming their impressionable consciences. “We drastically underestimate how the movies are molding the morality of the children,” he points out. “Kids think jumbled morality is normal and acceptable, and it deforms them. They get the ideas in the back of their mind and, later on, these thoughts influence their own moral decisions.”

In his youth ministry, he eschews R-rated films and aims for contemporary works that combine action with depth. Asked to cite an example, he points to the Bourne trilogy. These are useful, he says, for launching philosophical discussions about what constitutes the person and how we can exercise our freedom in ways that are both right and good.

Navigate Potential Pitfalls

Back in Spotsylvania, Father Riley warns against showing DVDs of movies the parents haven’t yet screened. He also cautions against assuming that all fare offered by generally family-friendly distributors will be fit for family consumption.

“Teenagers are looking for ways to legitimize certain behaviors,” he adds. “Once you’ve seen something, the devil can use memories of that image to tempt you for the rest of your life.”

The Hostetlers back up his observation with a real-life anecdote. Once, Jim recalls, some acquaintances loaned the family a children’s movie that turned out to have an ugly undercurrent. “The subliminal message was: Manipulate people and everything will be okay,” he says. He describes how the story’s young protagonist disobeyed her parents, made up her own rules, sought to control others — and, in the end, received a hero’s fanfare.

One daughter thought it was safe just because it contained no bad language. “If she had gone to the neighbors’ house to watch this,” says mom Diane, “we wouldn’t have been there to show her that lack of obvious evil doesn’t always mean a good and positive message.”

In fact, she notes, “The hidden and subtle things are dangerous because they don’t reach out and grab them as a curse word does.

“We are pretty careful, even with kids older now, as to what we do watch,” concludes Diane Hostetler. “When you go to the lengths of home schooling for 17 years, you don’t casually hand your children off to the current culture and things of the world. Home schooling rolls over into our entertainment, where we want to make it a lesson in the virtues, in good versus evil, in finding answers” to tricky moral questions.

Now that’s entertainment.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.