Top 25 Movies and TV Shows Examining Resilience
Inspiring stories of strength in the midst of difficult — and sometimes harrowing — circumstances can be found in all walks of life.
Movies and television shows can profoundly impact our lives. They're windows into alternate realities — ones that terrify us, delight us, break our hearts, and motivate us.
The very best shows go beyond that, acting as catalysts for social change, shifting public perspectives, and showcasing resilience. We watch fearfully as our heroes fall, and then we swell with pride when they inevitably pick themselves back up. The “never give up” attitude of a hero exemplifies a resilience we may already have, or one we hope to achieve.
In the meantime, if you need some inspiring stories to get you through the next half year or more — or simply a distraction to get your mind off of everything — we've curated a list of films and shows about resilience in relationships, racism, mental illness, and everything in between. Here are our top 25 picks:
Shows About Addiction and Living With Health Challenges
Atypical chronicles the trials and tribulations of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager trying to navigate relationships who is also living with autism spectrum disorder. The Netflix series tackles issues of shame and illustrates the challenges of living with a teenager who has autism. The show portrays Sam and his family’s resilience in making an atypical life their new normal, while also reminding us that no one is really typical — everyone expresses themselves in their own way, and that’s part of what makes them resilient.
2. Beautiful Boy
Based on the best-selling memoir by New York Times writer David Scheff, Beautiful Boy follows the story of Nicolas Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and his journey from addiction to recovery with the support of his father, David (Steve Carell). The movie portrays Nic’s struggle with methamphetamine use — which eventually evolves into a heroin addiction — and his battle through recovery. It not only showcases Nic’s resilience, but the strength of family and friends who stood steadfastly by him, despite the emotional toll Nic’s drug addiction has on the people who love him most.
This Oscar-winning documentary is set in Huntington, West Virginia, a city where the opioid overdose rate is 10 times the national average. A heroine in the film is Jan Rader, the city’s fire chief, who spends her days in an endless cycle reviving people who have overdosed. Cabell County, where Huntington is located, is home to just 96,000 people, and the county spent close to $100 million in healthcare costs associated with intravenous drug use in 2015 alone. Both Rader and Patricia Keller, judge of the city’s drug court program, treat people with compassion even as they mete out justice. Amidst the heartbreaking toll addiction takes in small communities across the country, Heroin(e) offers glimmers of optimism, and the resilience of people in these towns trying to save their neighbors.
Maudie is based on the story of beloved Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), who lived with rheumatoid arthritis and dealt with tremendous pain. Having lost both of her parents, Maud lives with her aunt, who discourages her from painting. Longing to live independently, Maud meets reclusive fish peddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and becomes his housekeeper. They are quickly married after a romantic relationship blossoms, and while her husband encourages her artwork, the marriage is a tumultuous one. In this tale of loneliness, love, and perseverance, Maud pulls beauty from despair and achieves what she always wanted to do: paint.
5. The Sessions
Polio left poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) paralyzed from the neck down, and to stay alive, he is forced to rely on an iron lung to keep him breathing. Because of his condition, O’Brien has never had sex, so he hires a professional sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) in the hopes of losing his virginity before he dies. The Sessions is a dark dramedy highlighting O’Brien’s resilience through an impossibly difficult health condition, and his determination to seek out not just sex, but true intimacy with a woman before his life ends.
Shows About Overcoming Racism, Oppression, and Injustice
6. He Named Me Malala
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 when she was just 15 years old. She miraculously survived, and having recovered from her injuries, she uses her voice to promote peace, understanding, and education for girls. She is also the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He Named Me Malala is an awe-inspiring story following Malala’s life before and after the shooting. She is a portrait of resilience, reminding us all that no matter how young or vulnerable you are, you can overcome the most devastating of circumstances and be an emblem of hope for the oppressed.
7. Rabbit-Proof Fence
Based on a true story, Rabbit-Proof Fence follows the plight of two young half-white, half-Aboriginal sisters and their cousin, who are ripped from their parents’ home in Western Australia and sent to an internment camp on the Moore River Native Settlement more than 1,000 miles away. The camp conditions are harsh, and they are forced to forget their families, purge their culture, and serve “white” Australian society as servants and laborers. The girls decide to run away, escaping on foot along the 1,500-mile rabbit-proof fence that will lead them home. With a callous tracker after them, the girls spend three-months on a journey that is both terrifying and excruciating. Their raw perseverance exemplifies the power of the human spirit.
Selma is a historical drama portraying the civil rights movement that forever altered history. Set in 1965, the film unfolds over a three-month period when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Daniel Oyelowo) was fighting for equal voting rights against hostile opposition. King and thousands of protestors risked their lives marching from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital, Montgomery, which culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Selma is a story of unparalleled perseverance that led to one of the most important victories of the American civil rights movement.
Few people know the struggles cultural icon Bruce Lee went through to sell his idea for a story about a Chinese martial arts master in the American West. Lee was apparently told an Asian American actor couldn’t carry a series, and instead, Kung Fu: The Movie was made with a white actor, David Carradine. Now, 50 years later, Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee is the executive producer of the Warrior series, which tells the story of a Chinese immigrant who arrives in San Francisco in 1878 only to be sold into gang. Violence ensues — and lots of it. The story examines how Chinese immigrants were treated in the 19th century when they were brought to America as a source of cheap labor to build railroads and other infrastructure, and then vilified as “other.” But the main character, Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), works to galvanize the Chinese people and fight for their freedom and honor.
10. When They See Us
When They See Us tells the tragic true story of five teenagers in 1990 who were convicted of raping and beating a young woman — after they were coerced into confessing to the crime. The “Central Park Five," as they came to be known, spent years in prison (maintaining their innocence throughout) before the true perpetrator of the crime confessed. The series includes scenes that are “horrifying, harrowing, upsetting, and infuriating,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert, and is ultimately an examination of how black and brown people are frequently presumed guilty in America. The series also highlights the uncomfortable truth about how hard it is to live a normal life after being released from prison. Anyone who has followed the story knows the men won their lawsuit against the city of New York, and despite all the odds, the now “Exonerated Five” have jobs, families, and are working to help reform the criminal justice system.
Shows About Family, Friendships, and Romance
11. Dead to Me
As the new Netflix hit Dead to Me illustrates, grief is all-consuming and nonsensical. After Jen's (Christina Applegate) husband is tragically killed in a hit-and-run, the mother of two is determined to find his killer. Jen's rage leads her to a grief counseling group, where she finds a new friend, Judy (Linda Cardellini). Through their friendship, Jen begins to unveil the hidden truths about her marriage to her late husband. Applegate, a breast cancer survivor, had show producers write a mastectomy into Jen’s story line. A carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation, Jen had lost her mother to breast cancer — a key factor in Jen’s decision to have the surgery as a preventive measure. Viewers later learn that Jen's husband resented her for this decision, shedding light on both Jen's resilience as well as Applegate's own off-screen resilience.
Roma, a semi-autobiographical tribute to the women who helped raise the filmmaker, Alfonso Cuaron, in 1970s Mexico City, is told through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the maid and nanny to a wealthy family. Even though she is loved by her employers, she is still an outsider and has her own challenges to deal with: She’s pregnant, and the father of her baby denies paternity. Without giving too much away, Cleo maintains a quiet strength and resolve through heartbreak, and becomes the glue that holds the family together when things in the house get rough.
13. The Florida Project
Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a six-year-old spitfire spending her summer at the low-budget Magic Castle motel just outside of Disney World — aka the Magic Kingdom — in Florida. It’s the sort of place where foodbank vans show up to hand out bread to residents, and where the manager, in an act of compassion, requires guests to move out of their rooms one night a month so they won’t establish residency. In The Florida Project, Moonee and several other young guests treat the motel as their personal playground — something most kids don’t have the luxury of doing. Moonee is foul-mouthed, disobedient, and often disrespectful, but it’s hard to imagine how she could be any different given the fact that her mother (Bria Vinaite) is an ex-stripper who now sells knock-off perfume. Despite her circumstances, Moonee thrives thanks to the power of childhood fantasy and her belief that everything will be okay in the end.
Hoping it will help her recover from the loss of her beloved mother, recent divorcée Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a solo 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl has no outdoors experience, and we watch her grapple with hiking, camping, and cooking while her painful past resurfaces through a series of flashbacks and personal reflections. Through sheer determination, she continues to log miles and seek help from strangers she meets along the way. Wild highlights concrete ways to foster resilience in your life, like making connections, setting goals, and identifying opportunities for self-discovery. Against all odds, Cheryl completes her journey in less than 100 days.
Shows About Resilience and Overcoming Discrimination in the LGBTQ Community
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormon Church) is known for renouncing its LGBTQ members, which may be tied to the significant suicide rates amongst LGBTQ youth in that community. In the documentary Believer, Dan Reynolds, frontman of Grammy Award–winning band Imagine Dragons, is on a mission to change the way the church he grew up in perceives and treats LGBTQ youth. Reynolds meets with parents of adolescents who have died by suicide while organizing the innaugural LoveLoud Festival in Orem, Utah. The third annual festival took place in Salt Lake City, Utah this past June, benefiting LGBTQ rights organizations like The Trevor Project.
16. Boy Erased
Based on Garrard Conley’s memoir, Boy Erased tells the story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of a Baptist pastor who is outed after a traumatic assault. His loving but very religious parents give him an ultimatum: He can attend a gay conversion therapy camp, or be exiled from his community. Jared commits to making some sort of peace with his parents, charting his own path along the way.
Special is a coming-of-age story about a young gay man who has cerebral palsy. Ryan O’Connell, who was hit by a car at age 20, is the star, creator, and writer of the series, which is based on his memoir, I’m Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves. O’Connell plays Ryan Hayes, a young man who lives with his mother, Karen. Sheltered by her protective instincts and his own fear of being seen as different, Ryan mostly keeps to himself. He goes to physical therapy and talks to his trainer about guys he likes but will never approach, and walks down the street wearing noise-canceling headphones as a shield from the world. It’s only after he gets hit by a car that he starts to think about his life so far, and decides to do more.
Shows About Resilience in Music and Sports
42 follows the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the legend who broke Major League Baseball’s (MLB) “color barrier” when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, a time when America was still racially segregated — in many places by law. Prior to Robinson being signed in the MLB, the league was “whites only.” Robinson showed courage and perseverance by not reacting to the racist taunts thrown at him during much of his early career. When his own racist teammates said they didn’t want to play alongside him, the Dodgers’ manager tells them that Robinson is the first of many black players who will be playing the sport and “unless you fellas pay a little more attention to your work, they’re gonna run you right out of the ballpark.”
19. Joe's Violin
In the short documentary Joe’s Violin, a Holocaust survivor donates his violin to a local instrument drive, changing the life of a schoolgirl named Brianna from the Bronx, New York, one of the country’s poorest districts. Brianna has her own challenges at home, and playing music gives her respite. When Brianna invites Joseph to attend a performance at her school, she tells him, “it’s more than a violin” before playing a song he learned from his mother. Brianna tells Joseph she admires him for never giving up, and his gift of the violin exemplifies how one small act can change a person’s life.
In a culture that glorifies sports heroes, the eight-part documentary Losers takes an alternate path, featuring in-depth conversations with athletes known primarily for their failures. Most of the athletes (including a figure skater, a curler, and a basketball player, to name a few) still participate in the sports they love even though success was elusive for them, either because of their own shortcomings or because of forces beyond their control. The documentary features interviews with friends, family, and coaches, and we watch as these athletes become heroes in their own stories, and find redemption from failure.
21. They Will Have to Kill Us First
When Islamic jihadists took over most of northern Mali in 2012, they imposed a strict form of sharia law that, among other extremist measures, banned music. In Mali, music is a vital part of communication, culture, and education. The documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First follows a group of prominent Malian musicians who refused to put down their instruments or quiet their voices amidst the takeover, instead fleeing south or forcing themselves into exile, even to refugee camps, so they could continue playing in safety. If caught, the musicians could face torture or even death, but despite their fears, they remain resilient under oppression. Along with the film’s live performances, They Will Have to Kill Us First is an inspiring, and at times, even joyful look at the power of music as a form of connection and resistance.
22. Wild Rose
Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) is a young Scottish woman who dreams of being a country singer. She was raised in a working class family, her mother a bakery attendant, but Rose-Lynn is convinced she belongs in Nashville, Tennessee. To complicate matters, she is fresh out of prison on a drug charge, the single mother of two young children, and her dream seems to be the only thing keeping her alive. When she takes a job cleaning a house for a wealthy couple, the wife hears Rose-Lynn singing as she works, and everything begins to change. A true rags-to-riches story, Wild Rose is inspiring for anyone who has ever dreamed of a life they never thought they could live — and the music is fantastic.
Shows About War, Veterans, and Living With PTSD
23. Beasts of No Nation
The brutal story of child soldiers in Africa is one few Americans can relate to, which is one reason Beasts of No Nation is so riveting — and at the same time, so hard to watch. You can’t help but think, “How can humans treat each other this way?” The film’s main character, Agu (Abraham Attah), watches most of his family get murdered and is then forced into the service of a vicious warlord (Idris Elba) where he is abused and drugged before being rescued by the United Nations. While we don’t really know what happens to Agu after he is rescued, the fact he is able to survive at all is a testament to his resilience.
24. Hell and Back Again
Just before his six-month stint in Afghanistan is up, Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris is hit by a sniper bullet and his leg is shattered. The Oscar-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again follows Harris as he navigates life as a civilian upon his return home to North Carolina and his wife, Ashley. The hardest part of Harris’s recovery isn’t living with a devastating injury, but learning how to live as someone other than a combat soldier. Variety reviewer Robert Koehler wrote that “the impact isn’t so much to shock audiences with the violent spasms of combat ... as to show why Harris feels more naturally at home leading men in war than he does as a vulnerable invalid in a rather cold and lonely America.”
Lioness is a documentary that tells the story of the first group of women soldiers to be sent into ground combat zones. Despite not having the same kinds of training as their male counterparts, these female warriors fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq War. Through journal entries, archival footage, and interviews, Lioness also examines the women’s experiences in Iraq, giving a unique female perspective to the emotional and psychological effects of war.
With additional reporting by Anna Brooks and Maura Corrigan.