Documentaries -- whether watched in the classroom or at home -- have always been a valuable "edu-tainment" tool. But, as with any kind of media today, finding solid, family-suitable docs can be as tricky as choosing appropriate scripted fare.
The five titles below offer windows into aspects of the natural world, culture and competition, and are sure to spark dialogue among parents and kids.
All are listed on particular streaming services, but it's worth checking if any of these titles is available elsewhere online, or on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Secrets of the Whales (2021): 191 minutes, rated TV-PG
Families that appreciate Disney’s streamer for easy access to animated classics might forget that National Geographic is also part of the deal. The visually stunning four-part docuseries Secrets of the Whales, filmed over three years in 24 global locations, captures these giants of the deep as never before seen.
Similar to the fashion in recent nature docs like Planet Earth, parents should be aware of subtle messages that elevate animals while disparaging any and all uses of natural resources for common good.
The constant refrain “They’re just like us” contrasts with the Church’s balanced teachings on the right relationship between humans and animals, which Secrets of the Whales might provide an opening to discuss.
Spellbound (2002): 97 minutes, rated G
Academy Award-nominated Spellbound spotlights the struggles and joys of eight diverse American families through their months of practice, early qualifying rounds, and ultimately meeting to compete in the National Spelling Bee.
Many have noted how the doc single-handedly made the Bee a massive cultural event that now airs on ESPN. Yet its true charm and insight lie in how it depicts a multigenerational drive to achieve the American Dream.
On HBO Max
Street Gang (2021): 127 minutes, rated PG
Generations of preschoolers have grown up learning letters and singing melodies with colorful big-eyed characters on Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969.
Preteens and older interested in teaching, puppetry and/or television will gain a lot from this fast-paced narrative; the film is rated PG for a few behind-the-scenes off-color jokes from puppeteers.
On Apple TV+
Boys State (2020): 109 minutes, rated PG-13
Since 1935, hundreds of thousands of Americans have participated in Boys and Girls State — mock legislatures that simulate modern politics with petitions, party platforms, and elections to high office.
While it was called off last year for pandemic reasons, the events of 2018’s Texas Boys State were captured for a compelling feature film with many lessons for today.
When over 1,100 teens converge in Austin, their campaigns become a microcosm of current events: social media smear campaigns, some double-dealing candidates, and rousing speeches that point to greater principles at stake.
With some coarse language making it best suited for teens and up, Boys State makes students and adults alike consider how democracy works.
The Short Game (2013): 99 minutes, rated PG
Clearly modeled after Spellbound, one of the first Netflix Original films, The Short Game follows eight driven pint-sized athletes leading up to and during the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship.
It presents each family’s stories with “warts and all,” including over-competitive parents and kids who’ve made athletics their whole identity. Yet in dedicated training and family bonding in sports, viewers also discover a love of the game and what it takes to succeed.
Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith and public-policy issues for various media outlets. He and his wife are raising two children in Northern Virginia.