Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.
Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here.
This article includes SPOILERS for Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl, Boyhood, and The Shawshank Redemption. – Editor
Sometimes I come across intriguing films that struggle with the issues and concerns of adolescents finding their identity and place in the world. Not being the most popular girl in high school, I resonate with those who feel out-of-place, who are rejected or set aside, or simply just do not fit in. I did not experience bullying, but I did experience the shortsightedness of teenage girls pettily ridiculing those who do not meet their own shallow and uncouth standards of self-importance. (It’s Mean Girls in a milder form.) And I’m probably not alone in this. After all, only one girl in the entire school can be prom queen at any one time! The deep-seated emotions that burst out in excitable adolescent fury can be a mask for a fear of rejection, fear of the future, fear of not finding one’s niche in life or fear of aloneness. Yet, in the coming-of-age experience there is the unexplainable existential desire for something more, and that it is attainable even if it means hoping against hope (Rom. 4:18).
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
In the vain of the cult classic, Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’s (2015) Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is an awkward, lanky, loner high-schooler who finds solace in making short films that parody famous movies with his co-worker Earl (RJ Cyler). Greg is urged by his mother to befriend a classmate, Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), who has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. He tries to connect with her. Rachel, in her aloneness, despises his lame attempts at friendship yet finds his quirkiness endearing after he comments on her pillow collection. They decide to meet regularly. At Earl’s convincing, Greg eventually shares his short films with Rachel, which pulls her out of her apathy and gives her reason to laugh. Despite chemotherapy Rachel’s disease worsens and Greg spends less and less time at school and homework and more time with Rachel. At her insistence he applies to college but is rejected because of his plummeting grades. When she decides to stop the unsuccessful treatment they argue and she tells Greg that he only selfishly helps others if he is told to. He is devastated since for the first time he truly cares about someone or something and now it is slowly slipping away from him. He makes a movie for Rachel and instead of going to the prom with his heartthrob crush, he goes to see Rachel in hospice and show her his film. She is moved and cries as they lay side by side watching his artistry before she slips into a coma.
The fear of interaction or apathy in connecting with the rest of humanity is what plagues Greg. With typical adolescent narcissism he lacks empathy for others until the emotional connection with another becomes encompassing. Until he met Rachel he was only interested in getting through high school, making his short films and trying to be concerned about a future in college. Instead this emotional connection takes him by surprise and upends everything in life. But, more importantly, it gives him a reason to hope. Not only does he hope for Rachel’s recovery, since they have become best friends, but he also hopes for a future for himself, a purpose that gives his life meaning.
A Theology of Hope
Hope is a word with multiple connotations. To hope that a situation will turn out well or that I receive that special mention or that a sick family member recovers, is a concern that something out of our control will turn out favorable. To hope is to believe in a future goal, especially in challenging circumstances. Benedict XVI says that hope is indispensible for humanity to exist, “The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey.” Human beings need hope in the future, but also in the now. It is what keeps us finding that balance between presumption and despair, as Thomas Aquinas explains. Presumption is the assumption that a person saves him/herself through his/her own capacities. Despair is ceasing to hope in perfect happiness. Both of these contradict authentic hope.
Too many young people follow the way of despair not knowing that there is something more than their fears, that life is not a series of mishaps, coincidences, or random encounters. Everything in life has a purpose. Hope, as a theological virtue, offers a vision of life as gift that then transforms our sometimes bleak existence into a hopeful desire for authentic happiness, both now and in the hereafter. Eternal happiness is the greatest goal and the ultimate longing of every human person. It is the existential desire for union with the supernatural, with God.
A truly Christian hope is that movement of our hearts for what we do not yet possess, but for which we long. It is the desire for something that is difficult to attain, but not impossible. It is a desire for union with God that moves people to seek a happiness that is immaterial and free from the sadness and injustice of this life. But that same connection with God leads one to trust that even in the challenges and sufferings of this life we do not surrender to despair, since that is controlling life rather than living it.
Greg felt helpless in controlling his own life and fell into an apathetic existence that is just shy of despair. He existed but did not truly live life fully until Rachel entered his universe. She, too, struggled with her own purpose for existence, making her need for emotional connection even more vital. Her fears were not imagined but tangibly present. Her battle with cancer forced her to find meaning in her quiet, simple, and beautiful life, which Greg discovers when he goes to her room and finds all her intricate book carvings of their and Earl’s adventures. Her story was written in the artistry of her carvings into the pages of books and the drawings on her walls, a testimony that no life is insignificant. Every life has purpose. Every life is beautiful.
Faith and Hope in Union
Hope can often be confused with wishful thinking. Hoping is not the same as wishing, an ethereal daydreaming kind of mental state. Instead it is a gathering of interior strength that opens us up to what is beyond ourselves. It is an essential life force, a constructive purposeful living with the goal of authentic happiness in mind. It is so tied to faith which, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Heb. 11:1). What we hope for is that perfect happiness of heaven while also seeking earthly hopes that lead us to that goal of salvation. Only with hope can we endure the tragedies of life with a trusting vision, while without it we are imprisoned in our own despair.
When St. Paul refers to Abraham as a model of faith and hope he examines Abraham’s dispositions toward God. God calls Abraham to literally drop everything and lead the land where he grew up to start all over again in a new land, with a new life, a new commitment. And Abraham trusts God and goes. When God says he will make Abraham the father of many nations, and then asks him to sacrifice his only son Isaac, in his grief, Abraham believes that God knows and understands all things. He obeys. He “hopes against hope.” He obeys by going against in what his hope lies, that is, to leave a legacy behind. Because of this inner disposition of trust, Abraham is rewarded by God and given multiple times as many graces and earthly blessings. He hopes beyond what the human mind can even imagine or grasp. His faith guides his hope.
In adolescence, life can seem confusing and authority overbearing especially if one chooses isolation over involvement. It is a cocoon time of the psyche to more fully develop into maturity. Yet, one can become so self-absorbed so as to not see, hear, or experience the needs of others around oneself. It is a crucial time where the balance is between selfishness or selflessness while protecting the self from the sometimes harsh world. Hope is the virtue that when cultivated can help a young person mature to be an integrated, confident and kind person, ready for authentic self-giving love.
Richard Linklater filmed his masterful coming-of-age drama Boyhood from 2002 to 2013 as Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grew up in Texas with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). Perhaps no other film better depicts the changes one goes through from childhood to adolescence. A gifted photographer in his teen years, but lackluster in his responsibility and ambitions, Mason struggles to reach out beyond himself into the world of relationships. Linklater developed the script as the years went on, adding to the story each year and working with the actors to develop the characters who infused the story with their own life experiences. In what has become one of the most acclaimed films of the 21st century, Linklater weaves the ordinary events of growing up with significant milestones for both children and parents, such as when Olivia (Patricia Arquette) breaks down as Mason leaves for college. She despairs that life is simply a living from one milestone to another. Mason, unable to understand or handle his mother’s emotional response, hugs her and leaves.
In the last scene, Mason arrives at his college dorm room, meets his roommate Dalton, Dalton’s girlfriend Barb, and her friend Nicole. The group goes hiking and Nicole shares with Mason that the dictum “seize the moment” seems backward. Life is really about the moments seizing us. Mason agrees and for the first time in his adolescent years seems to connect with others with a little more hope and confidence. The viewer is left to complete the story that the coming out of oneself truly brings joy and hope to life.
Characteristics of Hope
These coming-of-age films offer a guide to the need for hope especially during those crucially formative adolescent years. Young people so struggle with the many conflicting emotions that accompany such a change in life that they cannot cope with the stress it causes. They seek relief in masking their fears and insecurities through bullying others, drugs, alcohol, sex and aggression. They too easily despair of a promised future when the life modeled to them is often riddled with abuse, disappointment, brokenness, and a colossal lack of hope exemplified by the evil present in society and the world. Fear is a constant concern considering terrorism rears its ugly head in the most unsuspecting places around the world. And when teenagers’ personal lives lack the guidance of formative and responsible adults, their inability to cope is magnified. Finding a solid ground on which to place one’s hope is part of growing into full maturity. And only when one discovers that our ultimate hope is in something beyond this material world, then we start to find light, peace, and serenity even in the midst of the chaos. Hope is what keeps us seeking the more.
According to Aquinas there are four characteristics to hope. First, there is a movement towards a good or what perfects the human person. Secondly, hope directs one to the future. One does not hope for what one already possesses, but seeks for what is not yet achieved. Thirdly, hope involves the realization of something that is not easily attainable. It involves struggle and arduous interior surrender of oneself. Lastly, only something that is actually attainable produces hope.
Frank Darabont’s 1994 film, The Shawshank Redemption, is not strictly a coming-of-age movie but is one of the most beloved films of all time by young adults. Based on a Stephen King novella—Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption—it tells the story of a banker, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) whose wife grows tired of their relationship and Andy catches her and her lover in bed in his home. He is accused of double murder and sentenced to life in Shawshank prison. Beaten by the other inmates, Andy befriends an older inmate Red (Morgan Freeman) who is also serving a life sentence. Andy soon gains the admiration of the other inmates when he refuses to let his hope die. He tells Red, “Hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things. And good things never die.” True hope defies death. It is what keeps the spirit alive, giving strength to the soul. Andy opens a prison library and offers classes to those who never finished school. After twenty years he escapes one night through a hole he dug through the concrete wall to access the sewer pipe leading to freedom. He hoped against hope to be free again after being wrongfully accused of murder.
In this film, hope breathes life into a desperate situation. Aquinas’ characteristics are played out here. There is the goal of freedom that Andy seeks and one that is in the future, though twenty years out. His escape from a wrongful prison sentence is not easily attainable, as Red comments on how he plowed through 500 yards of sewage, yet he was never caught. Freedom for Andy was not only physical freedom from prison it was also an interior freedom that gave him a sense of purpose for his existence. Red recalled that Andy once said, “I guess it comes down a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” That is a message for every young person who feels shunned, disgraced, or alone. It is about drawing on that deep conviction that there is something more, and being made in the image and likeness of God, that more is attainable, now on earth and perfectly in heaven. No matter how difficult like can be there is always hope. This is a message every young person needs to hear.
Hope offers a way to live with a deep sense of interior peace and know our hearts are set on an eternal goal where fear does not have the last word. Growing up is already a challenge for adolescents. Growing into spiritual maturity gives one strength, grace, and freedom. Ideally, spiritually coming-of-age is this – knowing oneself, accepting oneself while giving of oneself in joyful surrender. Only then will we truly be happy. Only then will we be free.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (November 30, 2007), 1.
 Christopher Kaczor, Thomas Aquinas on Faith, Hope, and Love: Edited and Explained for Everyone, (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, 2008), 83.
 Richard Lennan and Nancy Pineada-Madrid, Ed., Hope: Promise, Possibility, and Fulfillment, (Mahway, NJ: Paulist Press, 2013), 17.
 Ibid., 83.
 Romanus Cessario, O.P., “The Theological Virtue of Hope,” in The Ethics of Aquinas, ed. Stephen Pope (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 232-33.
Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.