Against All Odds: Inspirational Tales

Steven Thorley Blogs

Everybody needs inspiration

I use film as my inspiration, but some films themselves tell inspirational stories too.

Film can convey a story, or facts about inspirational events, people, and situations that we can all relate to, and in this sense, cinema reflects well on us when it tells an inspirational tale.

I went to see A Star is Born’ last year. I’d read about it being in production some time before, and thought it was genius casting Lady Gaga as she’s the epitome of a somewhat unconventional performer/ singer who climbed the ranks to become the classy versatile songstress she is today.

The film is much more a re-imagining of the earlier ‘A Star is Born’ films, and tells a much grittier modern story, which also works as a cautionary tale surrounding the music industry.

Lady Gaga has successfully transferred from off-beat and eccentric pop-star to big-screen stage starlet with grace, and she deserved an academy award for her performance, director Bradley Cooper should have had at a best-director nomination at this year’s Oscars.

‘We’re far from the shallow now’ ~ Lady Gaga singing Shallow

A Star is Born’ is also an inspirational film as its central character, a talented club singer, Ally Maine (portrayed by Lady Gaga), is going through a tough time in her life. She is yet to find her moment in the spotlight; she doubts herself, her abilities, and her physical attractiveness, all aspects that are prominent hurdles in the music and performing industry.

The film features a romance that plays out in a way that is relatable to many, which sets it apart from so many Hollywood romances where everything works out perfectly.

So together with ‘A Star is Born’ I shall be sharing some inspirational cinematic tales I think are worth a look.

The Elephant Man (1980)

‘The Elephant Man’tells the tragic, yet inspirational tale of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film) who was born with a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition, the nature of which remains uncertain to this day. This tragic true story takes places in Victorian London around the latter part of the 19th century.

In director David Lynch’s film, John Merrick (John Hurt) finds himself part of a circus freak show where he is cruelly bullied, exploited, and abused by victorian freak show owner Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones). Fortunately, John Merrick crosses paths with doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), who confronts Mr. Bytes and, many elements in Victorian London who won’t except him, and discovers to his surprise that John is extremely intelligent and kind. He introduces him to high society, if only for a short moment in time. The resulting film ‘The Elephant Man’ would become one of American director David Lynch’s signature films, if not his best work, and certainly his most mature.

Joseph Merrick, despite all he had working against him, managed to defy the odds and fight back against the cruel society that had cast him out, making the film and its story very inspirational.

Movie still from The Elephant Man 1980

A memorable and very profound scene occurs in the latter part of the film where John is admiring a model of a Cathedral he has built out of paper. The camera glides around this man-made structure focusing on its roof and symmetry; therefore, juxtaposing it with John’s extreme disfigurement which is at odds with such symmetry by nature.

The film has some very memorable black & white cinematography courtesy of Freddie Francis, whom would go on to collaborate with David Lynch for many years.

Overall, this is an exceptional work, not an easy watch though, but very emotive and sobering, and beautifully shot; it has stood the quality test of time and has continued to do so.

‘The Elephant Man’ is being produced into a BBC 1 drama and will reach our screens this year.

A Monster Calls (2015)

When tragedy and tangible cruel realities like cancer are conveyed in drama, they can be tough to watch. A Monster Calls’ is no exception, but the story is so well conceived, bold, and brilliant that you can’t help but admire it, and ultimately find much enjoyment from it.

Despite containing elements of cancer in the narrative, at its heart, the film is about a withdrawn young boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who is torn emotionally between the love of his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) and wanting her battle with the disease to be over.

This tragic situation serves as a catalyst for the films conceit which involves a gigantic yew tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) calling in on Conor via his bedroom window, after her draws a picture resembling such a monster in his bedroom.

From here-on-in the monster tells him three moralistic tales which ultimately serve as a sort of psychological safety net (by Conor’s own creation) for when his mother finally passes away. A fourth and final tale, which will be Conor’s final truth to the monster, appears at the film’s conclusion, and has a bitter-sweet finality. These tales, the monster conveys, are supplemented by beautiful abstract animation in the film.

Movie still from ‘A Monster Calls’ 2015

The character of Conor’s plight is complex. He is bullied by some particularly cruel schoolyard bullies. Essentially, Conor and his situation with his mother serve as a visual symbol of fear/anxiety to the school yard children. As his mother is in the later stages of the disease, so the bullies, unable to except what they afraid of, refer to her mockingly. To make matters worse, Conor is juggling his emotions surrounding his father (Toby Kebbell) who is now separated from Conor’s mother, yet he still has a strong bond with his son.

Strip away all the subjects present in ‘A Monster Calls’, including the plight of the mother, and you find the character of Conor really does just love his mother, and the situation he’s found himself in only compounds this love. The subject of which is the core of the film, using the tough subject matter of cancer as the catalyst.

Lizzie (Felicity Jones) and Conor (Lewis MacDougal) have an unusually strong bond and share personal characteristics and qualities: this is expressed in a love of drawing and fantasy, which allows them to express their feelings, and serves as an ambiguous symbolic question mark in the film’s final scene, which closes the film beautifully.

The Cyberbully (2015)

‘The Cyberbully’ works as a raw look into the effects of online bullying and peer pressure. It’s also a showcase for the talents of ‘Game of Thrones’actress Maisie Williams in the role of typical teen Casey Jacobs, who anchors this film together practically by herself and a computer.

The film tells the story of Casey Jacobs (Maisie Williams) as she falls prey to a particularly unpleasant cyberbully, but the cyberbully has a few home-truths for Casey Jacobs too, concerning her own bullying actions. Young British actress Maisie Williams continues to prove she’s amongst the most talented actresses of her generation as she brings her menacing faceless cyber-bully to life, by her own reactions to it, effortlessly switching between a kaleidoscope of expressive emotions. Such acting craft proves you don’t need to leave the physical confines of a room to provide drama or layered & emotive film-making, as your imagination fills in the gaps.

A films story can transverse time and location or fantasy or reality, but if the drama isn’t effectively conveyed or engaging then the location is meaningless and ‘The Cyberbully‘ is for all intents and purposes just Maisie Williams in a room with a computer and the film works effectively.

‘The Cyberbully’ is inspirational because it conveys a contemporary issue (online bullying) and offers an intelligent multifaceted perspective on the subject, whilst providing an ultimately inspirational character in Casey Jacobs, who beats the cyberbully and learns one or two things about her own flaws in the process.

Overall, ‘The Cyberbully’ is an effective, independent film which is anchored by a strong lead performance from actress Maisie Williams, who will return to our screens as Arya Stark for one final turn in ‘Game of Thrones’ this April.

Is Social Media safe?

I think the themes covered in ‘The Cyberbully’ are accurate and presented well, but from my perspective, it’s not so much the damaging effects of online bullying that present the most damaging problem; rather, I think it’s the loss of anonymity that youth used to have during their school years, as social media has changed the dynamics of that period in a young person’s life.

There has been a change in our societies since the creation of social media: our youth are more cautious as they’ve been hard-wired into embracing a network governed by certain rules and where, for the most part, their movements are monitored by friends by way of pictures and videos.

Consequently, this mind-set has been transferred to life outside of social media by way of a somewhat superficial interpretation of the world around them. People may be looking for social media photo opportunities rather than just enjoying the moments that matter in life without worrying about social media, as just one example.

You see the nature of social media is it presents an idea of a person, and not necessarily the real person. We only speak of the positive on social media, but we don’t speak about that which reflects on us badly.

It’s in this sense youth or adults may interpret the social media spider-web as a source of peer pressure, which may not really exist in the way they perceive it, and subsequently, this compounds a naturally occurring issue for youth in the form of natural peer pressure.

This is just a negative or questionable element of social media, and there are many positives. I think when bad things happen in the world nowadays, we’re quick to judge social media, and in Freudian terms, we tend to unconsciously displace the real thoughts and feeling of any given negative event and swap them to an easy target, in this instance social media or even cinema.

Joy (2015)

Director David O Russell made a good impression with 1999’s ‘Three Kings’, but it was his string of collaborations with actress Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle & Joy) which have cemented him as an important and prominent figure in the film industry.

Self-educated actress Jennifer Lawrence has proven herself to be amongst the most successful young actresses and business women of her generation, but it’s in her work with director David O Russell that she really shines.

Set during the Winter,Joy’ tells the true story of Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) a determined single mother, who despite great hardship in her personal life, went on to design the ‘self-wringing’ Miracle Mop and became household name in the world of television sales.

The film also stars Bradley Cooper as an unscrupulous QVC television executive, and Robert DeNiro as Joy’s supportive father.

The story of Joy Mangano is a very positive, inspirational, American fairy-tale and actress Jennifer Lawrence captures Joy’s frustrated, yet determined persona perfectly. As the film explores themes of determination, sincerity, and the nature of a personal struggle against the odds.

Director David O Russell is very talented, and he’s clearly taken this story his own way, with his own brand of subtle humor and technical cinematic craft; actress Jennifer Lawrence appears particularly confident in all her work with this director also, so there is clearly a solid creative relationship on display. Ultimately, ‘Joy’ created something that makes life easier on us all; therefore, hers is a story that is worth telling.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

This film tells the story of poor rural Missouri teenager Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) who, whilst caring for her ill mother and two siblings, finds herself under threat of eviction, as her missing criminal father, who’s not shown up for his hearing, put their home down as part of his bond agreement, and therefore she must find him, starting with asking her meth-addicted uncle Tear-drop (John Hawkes) of his whereabouts.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence was new on the scene back in 2010, and it’s easy to see why she’s become such a huge success. This really is a stand-out role for such a young actress, and one who never had much in the way of formal acting training or, indeed, a high-school education.

‘Winter’s Bone was directed by acclaimed film-maker Debra Granik, whose 2018 film ‘Leave No Trace’ has garnered almost universal positive praise and attention from film-critics and is a notable missing film from the Oscars this year. ‘Winter’s Bone‘ itself received four Academy Award nominations in 2010 including Best Picture.

Despite what appears to be a relatively small budget film, ‘Winter’s Bone’ manages to create great scope with its use of the moody, often claustrophobic woodland rural Missouri setting. It’s a bleak film, but not without an elegant poignancy, something director Debra Granik is skilled at.

This film itself is a gritty mystery drama film, but that doesn’t stop it injecting social commentary into mix surrounding poverty, and the situations people find themselves in as they try to make ends meet, in what can often be a self-perpetuating and unfair circle for many. Hence, the film is very inspirational for anyone whose lived through poverty, hardship or intimidation in their lives; you can’t help but root for the character of Ree Dolly and empathize with her plight, whilst feeling a sense of admiration for her strength and everything she goes through in the film: she never gives up.

The acting in ‘Winter’s Bone’ is outstanding, and it’s one of those films that need not stray too far from its setting in order to tell its tale.

Overall, ‘Winter’s Bone’ is a solidly made, engaging, and intelligent film, both a break-through performance from actress Jennifer Lawrence, and indeed, talented director Debra Granik.

A Star is Born (2018)

A Star is Born‘ tells the story of Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a down on his luck alcoholic country singer/songwriter, who meets struggling club singer Ally (Lady Gaga).

Jackson Maine meets Ally as she’s performing in a local drag nightclub, and sees she’s an extremely talented performer, who lacks confidence. The two form a romantic bond, and Ally progresses from singing in a sleazy nightclub to performing on the stage, with the help of her very troubled yet wise companion.

Actor Bradley Cooper made his directorial debut with ‘A Star is Born’ and it’s a strong debut. He’s a confident film-maker. He knows exactly the type of story he wishes to tell and doesn’t pander to any conventions: the film is hopeful yet dark, stylish, and it goes at its own pace, giving the actors room to breathe.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have perfect cinematic chemistry, and this is crucial, not just for this romantic film, but for any film. I love to see on screen chemistry, as it can really bring a film to life and gives a film layers that can’t been replicated by craft.

Director Bradley Cooper is a relatively understated film-maker, and takes his time developing his characters on screen, whilst sporadically utilising the vocal talents of Lady Gaga, whom I believe has what it takes to make it in Hollywood and was perfect for this role. She is in many ways playing a character like herself. In the sense, she’s long been associated with a certain type of stage persona that doesn’t entirely reflect her full range of talents, like her character Ally Maine.

In ‘A Star Is Born’, Lady Gaga’s character Ally Maine transforms from a dreamer, with no confidence, to a fully-fledged songstress eloquently, and Lady Gaga’s acting talent really shines through, especially during the films more emotive moments, during the early stages of her relationship with Jackson Maine, too the more intense raw scenes towards the films conclusion.

‘A Star Is Born’ was my favourite film of 2018, and it end up receiving an Oscar for Best Song, but for me personally it was the best picture, easily.

Final Thoughts

Film is all about aesthetics and smoke and mirrors. How any given film connects with you or doesn’t is, for the most part, rooted in a technical craft developed by the film-makers, along with the help of of literally thousands of people, and a film’s screenplay often has multiple different writers, with their thoughts and feelings being shaped into one idea on the screen.

When we review a film or discuss a film, in terms of any given merit, we’re discussing how any given film has reached us individually, first and foremost, but the way we think or perceive a film has connected with us is often because it has been engineered or crafted to make us feel about it a certain way. So even the most observant film critic has fell under the spell of cinema.

In general, I would hope, as a basic guideline of quality, any given film succeeds in capturing an audience’s imagination, and fully immerses them into the story it tells; full enjoyment of film requires a temporary suspension of disbelief (letting go of reality and believing in what you’re seeing on the screen).

But getting an audience to believe in a film is tough, and being a visual medium, you’re under visual scrutiny too, so it’s got to look the part, whilst conveying its story.

Mainstream cinema feels the need to reflect contemporary themes as not to alienate a mass audience, but sometimes themes can alienate an audience in of itself, as not everyone likes contemporary themes or such like, so I’ve attempted to cater for an alternative market over the year on the blog, as we’re all made up of different personalities and interests, not just one.

Different films mean different things to different people, especially where inspiration is concerned, but I’ve tried to share some films that I think have inspirational merit and are worthy of your time, regardless.

I could switch up many films, but I’ve tried to keep some films that share some similar themes, namely beating the odds, and the strength of the human condition when faced with adversity, struggle, or hardship. Not all these films have positive outcomes, but when does life always have a positive outcome?

Film should reflect aspects of real-life in the stories it tells, regardless of the setting, in order to successfully capture its audience’s attention and get them to believe in the film they’re watching.

Overall, I hope these movies inspire and entertain in equal measure.


  1. I’m not a doctor, but I’ve successfully treated my own wounds and others. I’m not a judge, but I’ve made some good judgements. I’m not a philosopher, but I’m driven by own philosophies. I’m not a paid film critic, but I know a good film when I see one. 🙂

  2. I think what I’ve alluded to here, outside of the world of film, is the nature of personal accountability in unique or diverse situations. In the sense, the characters have all made something positive out of their paths in life, no matter how unorthodox or accepted. The nature of this drives me as a human being in every aspect of my life: I draw my strength or motivation out of that which I feel is worthy and never a sense of blanket accountability for any given situation, person, or place – something of which I accept is the polar opposite of Western values. I believe we work best or truly succeed when our faith in what we do, no matter how small, is equal to that of the reason, person, or situation that has driven it, and not as a means to an end or route of fiscal stability.


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