The ease of online communication in our increasingly digital world is generally presented as a curse just as often as it is as a blessing. There is a sense that diving too deep into an online presence detaches us from reality and dulls our ability to communicate face to face. This is certainly a product of the convenience of expression that the internet offers, where the screen serves as a buffer between an individual and the world. On the other hand, social media has proven to be a platform for a kind of emotional honesty, serving to communicate condensed, snappy versions of everyday struggles for the world to like and retweet. Empathizing with these bite–sized pieces of the human condition is comforting—it’s nice to know that you are understood. However, the effect of these glimmers of connection are short lived, and their content is often shallow. There are far more meaningful ways of connecting to universal emotional experiences—and one of those is film.
Film has a remarkable ability to make us feel—to stir the empathy inside of us as though the actor portrayals on screen were real people with real lives. The success of this effect rests on the director’s ability to build a believable space for the story to unfold, writing that hits all the right chords, and acting that pulls it all together. It also requires the audience to be emotionally available and to be swept up in the story, absorbing all the carefully placed reminders of their own vulnerability embedded within the movie.
When a film is able to do this successfully, those feelings of empathy have a tendency to creep up on us slowly until, suddenly, we feel the tears begin to well up in our eyes. For certain films, in certain spaces, it feels safe to cry. There is a sense that this is what the filmmakers intended, and it’s okay to show an outpour of emotion despite being in a public space, like a movie theater. It doesn’t matter if what we’re watching isn’t real, because all its pieces come from someplace very real. Film is like a lens, it takes in the feelings and experiences that we all have, and channels them toward a certain story or vision. A movie that feels real doesn’t give off that impression because it is the most narratively realistic, but because it taps into something very true to what it is like to experience a particular series of events and emotions.
It is often cited that our increasingly interconnected digital lives leave us cold to the real–world relationships we need to thrive. This paradoxical isolation that we experience seems to arise from the weak translation of real life interaction to that which we experience through a screen. Even the humorous and self–deprecating approach to relatability that is very visible online doesn’t quite match the soothing nature of a good discussion with an empathetic friend. I like to think that movies have the opposite effect of this cheap, online sentimentality, as they expand a perspective on life instead of condensing it.
Like a tweet, a film is the translation and transmission of an idea—and that’s about where the comparison ends. When a good movie handles the human condition with the proper care, the result can bring the audience to tears, as though the characters were our dearest friends, or even a reflection of ourselves. The best movies give us something to ponder and reflect on without preaching to us. They play with our hearts and our minds, and sometimes they stay there for hours, or days, or weeks. There will never be a shortage of relatable content online, but giving yourself the chance to sit back and let a movie tap into your sentimentality is an experience that simply cannot be replicated by any other form of media.