Great documentary films for younger audiences

Many people tend to underestimate young people's capacities for thinking about weightier topics that affect their lives. I have always believed that documentaries can be a great way to get them engaged in larger issues, but the documentaries have to be sufficiently entertaining.

Following is an assortment from the last 10 years that I feel do both: they are interesting and can help young people view the world with a more sophisticated outlook. Maybe mix one of these into your movie night list, and share your own recommendations in the comments!

Mad Hot Ballroom - 2005
This is my personal favorite on this list, and great viewing even if you don't have kids in your life. Follow elementary students as they train for a ballroom dance program developed in the New York City Public School system.
Amazon reviews

Girls Rock! - 2007
Follows girls and young women at Rock 'n' Roll Camp as they try to break free of the conformity expected of them at home. Watch them become self-possessed badass rocker chicks!
Film site []
Amazon reviews

Bowling For Columbine - 2002
I like this movie because it's a great jumping-off point for discussing media manipulation and propaganda, even more so than for discussing gun violence.
Film site []
Amazon reviews

Frontline: The Merchants of Cool - 2001
Speaking of media manipulation, Boing Boing contributor Douglas Rushkoff put together this classic must-see coverage of how young people are manipulated as consumers. As someone who has been paid to sell stuff to the "tween" and "yurban" markets, I can attest to much of what's covered here.
Program site []
Amazon reviews

Spellbound - 2002
The charming classic about finalists at the 1999 National US Spelling Bee.
Amazon reviews

American Teen - 2008
This film follows a group of high school seniors in my home state of Indiana, but it could be just about anywhere in small-town America.
Film site []
Amazon reviews

Jesus Camp - 2007
An unvarnished look at evangelical Christianity and home-schooled believers at a North Dakota religious camp for youth.
Film site []
Amazon reviews

Louder Than A Bomb - 2010
This film is making the festival rounds right now. What I like about this look at the Chicago poetry slam scene is that there's a real range of experiences among the young people depicted. Taking young people to a local film festival is always a great idea, too, so see if you can find this!
Film site []


  1. Mad Hot Ballroom is one of my all-time favorite movies. I hope they do a follow-up on the kids in a few years.

  2. Bowling For Columbine is about as sneaky an example of media manipulation as they come. Michael Moore plays so fast and loose with the truth, while setting the tone that he’s just a normal guy who is trying to get the to the bottom of a situation.

    Highly effective as propaganda and preaching to the choir, but intellectually dishonest and shamelessly manipulative in even a way that tabloid new sources couldn’t get away with.

    Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!

  3. I’m looking forward to seeing all these with the exception of Jesus Camp; I started watching it but could not get beyond the part where the (looks to be) 8-year-old girl with the angelic blond curls demonstrates how Jesus likes the way Evangelicals conduct their church services, but “doesn’t like going to churches where they just sit there and say words and sing”.

    This is the direction modern Evangelicals are moving in; polarize Christians as well. I had to shut it off. I’ll be running through the rest of this list very soon!

    1. Jesus Camp was really tough to watch. You may be better off not knowing just how scary christians are.

      1. Jesus Camp was really tough to watch. You may be better off not knowing just how scary some christians are.

        Fixed that for you.

      2. iLynne, I haven’t watched “Jesus Camp” yet- but as a Christian, I suspect it will turn my stomach. Just please bear in mind we’re not all like that- just as not all Muslims want to destroy America.

        Unfortunately, in America at this time it seems that the “Jesus Camp” variety of Christians is in the majority, unlike radical Muslims, which are clearly a small subset of the faith. That fact does indeed inspire feelings of misgiving, especially among those of us who aren’t very eager to be associated with the ‘crazy evangelicals’ and their twisted ideas.

  4. Last Train Home

    Follows migrant Chinese workers leaving their children behind on the family farm to go into the cities to work at factories, and their annual trip home at New Years, including the ice storm that stopped the trains and stranded 100’s of 1000’s.

    If you want to see the unvarnished face of capitalism, this is it.

    Especially harrowing are the shots of the empty dockyards during the economic bubble burst of 2008.

  5. At my amazing LA public high school, I am a teacher in the Social Justice Academy. We’ve watched great documentaries with the kids on movie night, including:
    which is about a Palestinian hip-hop group crossing over to Isreal
    • Food, Inc.; a few went vegetarian, and some are now helping with the community garden
    • we saw Walkout! and they loved it, inspired them to be more active and vocal, made them realize that even as teenagers they can effect change.

    Kids at any age are receptive to being treated like thinking, caring individuals. Try it, they’ll always surprise you with the depth of their emotion and criticism.

  6. Koyaanisqatsi.

    Probably a little too slow paced for kids reared on the Average Cut Length of 2.7 seconds in modern films, but it tells a chilling story.

    ~D. Walker

  7. “Man on Wire”

    “Hoop Dreams”

    and a second for “The Thin Blue Line”

    No reason a historical documentary can’t work too, I recommend Ric Burns’ “The Donner Party”

  8. The Heart of the Game

    “Director Ward Serrill followed the Roosevelt Roughriders girls’ basketball team for six tumultuous seasons capturing the drama and exhilaration of youth and the inspiration of a passionate coach whose lessons of self-esteem, confidence and compassion go far beyond the court.”

  9. a lot of themes covered by vanguard journalism are a bit too tough for children i guess but their recent piece on the brutal soccer business should be shown in schools – at least everywhere in europe. football, as its called here, is so popular but rarely anyone knows about how much misery is attached to this big business game.

    in germany there used to be a special programme on tv that made documentaries for kids by the way. they put a focus on the experience of being a child in different countries. i do remember it to be a bit sugar coated though…

  10. From the Wikipedia article:

    ‘Toward the end of the 20th century, some have tended to confuse “evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism,” but as noted above they are not the same. The labels represent very distinct differences of approach which both groups are diligent to maintain, although because of fundamentalism’s dramatically smaller size it often gets classified simply as an ultra-conservative branch of evangelicalism.

    Both groups seek to maintain an identity as theological conservatives; evangelicals, however, seek to distance themselves from stereotypical perceptions of the “fundamentalist” posture of antagonism toward the larger society and advocate involvement in the surrounding community rather than separation from it.’

    Pentecostal? Certainly. Fundamentalist? Obviously. But let’s not pretend that the “Kids On Fire School of Ministry” represents evangelicalism in any historically, culturally, or philosophically meaningful way.

    J.R. Jones from the Chicago Reader agrees:

    “Jesus Camp is also hamstrung by its polemics. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady lump all evangelicals together, failing to distinguish the more fundamentalist Pentecostals… Jesus Camp seems less interested in understanding evangelicals than in making secular viewers wet their drawers.”

    Although they’re both about Jerry Falwell’s church, which emerged historically from the fundamentalist tradition, “In the Land of Believers” by Gina Welch and “The Unlikely Disciple” by Kevin Roose provide less polemical (but still thoroughgoingly secular) looks at something closer to mainstream evangelicalism.

  11. “Young at Heart” is great for everyone, but kids will like watching old people sing rock songs.

  12. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is one of my go-to documentary gateway drugs. It’s a fun story.

  13. “Blindsight”:
    is a film about Tibetan children who are visually impaired. People in Tibet don’t always understand disability and we see the harsh reality with these kids. The kids along with Erik Weihenmayer, who is blind and climbed the 7 summits, climb up Lhakpa-Ri peak of Mount Everest.
    Children always like learning about other kids especially in other countries. And the Tibetan lives are very different from a typical American kid.

    Also, “OT: Our Town”
    It’s about the high school Drama group from Compton. There hasn’t been a play in the high school for 20 years, most of the $ and attention are on the school’s basketball team.
    The Drama group and their teachers work very hard to put on the play Our Town. It’s a stiff play and hard to translate sometimes into modern life but the group does it.

  14. There’s SO many:


    God Grew Tired Of Us:

    The Heart Of the Game:

    Broadway – The Golden Age:

    Ballet Russes:

    Blind Spot – Hitler’s Secretary:

    (Next might be a little much for the younger ones – it is about the abortion debate)

    Lake Of Fire:

    (Two by Agnes Varda)

    The Gleaners And I:


    The Beaches Of Agnes (aka Les Plages d’Agnes):

    (Two more, maybe too much for kids)

    The Cove:

    Dear Zachary – a letter to a son about his father:

    I could go on – there is just too many!! (and note: I’ve mentioned not one of the fine docs about the recent wars!)

  15. Jesus Camp put me into labour! Just kidding, but I WAS watching it to pass time during contractions last spring. Missed the end of it! This is a great list. My 11-year-old daughter was just asking me what “propaganda” meant, so I think it’s time for Bowling for Columbine.

  16. Great suggestions! ‘Food Inc.’ is definitely another good one.

    ‘The Cove’ (recommended by a friend offsite) should probably get watched before sharing it with kids, to make sure they are the right emotional age for films with troubling violence.

    Expanding past my arbitrary limit of the last decade, ‘The Thin Blue Line’ and Morris’s Hawking documentary ‘A Brief History of Time’ are both really great.

  17. +1 for Mad Hot Ballroom. Also, if you’re tired of slushy Disney princess fodder try some animation like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “Kirikou.” Sure to please both children & adults and provoke some good conversation.

  18. Mad Hot Ballroom and King of Kong are both excellent documentaries. I’m just finishing up post-production on a family-friendly documentary about the game of MONOPOLY called “Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story” which we’ll be releasing this fall. We have a great section of the film which shows some of the many ways that Monopoly can be used to teach kids math in a fun manner!

    Check out the trailer and join the mailing list at

    Kevin Tostado
    Producer/Director of “Under the Boardwalk”

  19. This thread is so amazing.

    “Planet B-Boy” is a super fun and inspirational film. It shows how focus and determination are a necessary part of achieving your goals.

  20. Thanks for the great list.
    Seconding Girls Rock and Planet B-boy.
    It’s good to note that NFB here in Canada has ALL of its docs up online for free, totally licensed for classroom use as well.

    I have showed my 5/6’s the following or parts of the following:

    Guns, Germs and Steel
    Inconvenient Truth
    The Story of Stuff
    Not the Indian You Had in Mind
    Persepolis–not a doc, but based in real events. (only part one for this age group)
    Man Up, a short about a boy’s relationship with his somewhat pushy father.

    and want to show them the following this year:
    War Dance
    Water (nice piece on Nestle as well as some sections on 3rd world initiatives)
    Planet B-boy
    Girls Rock

    Not all of these are docs

  21. Re: Jesus Camp. I went to Christian camps when I was a kid, and continue to go to evangelical churches as an adult.

    I have never, ever witnessed anything even close to the behavior shown in the movie. To say it represents an unvarnished look at evangelical Christianity is inaccurate.

    I am not a religious expert, but speaking in tongues seems to be a a predominantly Pentecostal tradition. In other word, the green line on this illustration of the branches of Protestantism

  22. My girls (9 and 11) loved Step into Liquid. The women who surf in that movie are great roll models.

    After watching Food Inc, the litte one decided to become a vegetarian — which we are whole-heartedy supporting.

    Film can change lives. Choose wisely! :-)

    P.s. Jesus Camp is accurate to my experiences growing up in churches that self-defined a Evangelical. And while the movie Saved is fictional, it could be a documentary of my high school experience. Just for the record…

  23. Lots of great docs on this list.

    Saw a terrific family doc in NYC a week or two ago. It’s called “Most Valuable Players” directed by Matthew D. Kallis. It’s sort of “Spellbound” meets “Glee”. It’s about the high school version of the Tony Awards. The film features three schools (one with a production of “Bye Bye Birdy” and the other two, crosstown rivals, both doing “Les Mis”) all hoping to win the big award. The film makes a good point that high school arts gets the short end of the stick compared to high school sports. But the big award ceremony (called the “Freddy Awards”) is like the Superbowl of high school musicals.

    Great characters and plenty of suspense. It’s a really happy film with lots of laughs and tears. Perfect for the whole family.

    It’s making festival rounds now. Do an internet search for “Most Valuable Players” and you can see the trailer.

  24. “Most Valuable Players” is the hands down best documentary of 2010. I saw it at Docuweeks LA at the Arclight Hollywood this month and it blew me away with the level of high school musical theatre talent in the Lehigh Valley. Michael Lumpkin, the director of Docuweeks, introduced “Most Valuable Players” as the feel good documentary of 2010 and he was spot on. It was a sold out screening in a very large theatre, no small feet for a documentary, and there were plenty of families in the audience. Many moments of joy, laughter, and a deeply moving surprise at the end. This film will be a classic and I’m so glad I got to see it before the bandwagon critics jump on board!

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