Poverty and homelessness have always been pressing issues around the world, but their shape and appearance have differed across countries, across cultures, and across centuries.
It's a hard topic to talk about as poverty and homelessness are tough to truly grasp if you haven't had first-hand experience, and it's (understandably) prone to get emotions flaring.
One of the best ways to develop sympathy and cognizance for both poverty and homelessness is to watch movies with realistic depictions of what it's like to live on the poverty line, the failings of modern society, and the challenges of climbing out when you're stuck.
Prepare to get a little (or a lot) angry and sad as you dive into these movies about poverty and homelessness, which incorporate aspects like unemployment, debt, hardships, and maybe even a bit of hope.
16. Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007)
Directed by David Attwood
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Nicola Duffett
Drama (1h 32m)
Although Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy are two big stars these days, there was a time when they were still new kids on the block—and it's totally possible that David Attwood's indie drama Stuart: A Life Backwards ended up slipping under your radar.
In this film, Benedict Cumberbatch is a privileged Cambridge writer and Tom Hardy a homeless alcoholic named Stuart Shorter who fluctuates between sleeping on prison beds and pavements, frequently attempting suicide due to his traumatic past and mental instability.
After his eyes are opened to the social divide of rich and poor, Cumberbatch's Alexander Masters wrote a biography about Stuart's life, which HBO made into this direct-to-TV drama.
15. Oliver! (1968)
Directed by Carol Reed
Starring Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Shani Wallis
Drama, Family, Musical (2h 33m)
Charles Dickens was all about exposing the poverty, segregation, and child abuse that pervaded the Victorian era. From Great Expectations to A Christmas Carol, his books often went into stark detail about the class division of his society.
Dickens's own experience working in a factory at age 12 fueled his desire to write social novels like Oliver Twist, one of his most well-known stories, which happens to be overtly against child labor.
In it, Oliver is a poor orphan who gets sold out of the workhouse before running away to London. There, he becomes a pickpocket.
Depressing as it sounds, Lionel Bart turned the dreary tale into a stage musical, which Carol Reed then adapted into this movie. Full of iconic songs, famous faces, and Cockney accents, Oliver! will make you tap along to a most tragic tale.
14. Les Misérables (2012)
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Drama, Musical, Romance (2h 38m)
Les Misérables is another social novel turned stage musical turned movie, but this one's slightly less upbeat than Oliver!. Based on the longest-running West End musical, Les Misérables had a lot to live up to when it hit cinemas—and it came out swinging with a stacked cast.
A scarred-and-chained Hugh Jackman and head-shaved Anne Hathaway serve as symbols of 19th century France.
Poverty, prostitution, and prison make up the bulk of the scenery, leading up to the Paris Uprising of 1832 that Victor Hugo memorialized in the original novel.
It was a chaotic and radical period for France, and Les Misérables rides on the heels of the infamous French Revolution, which took place only a few decades before and was caused by economic depression and widespread poverty.
13. Rosie (2018)
Directed by Paddy Breathnach
Starring Sarah Greene, Molly McCann, Darragh Mckenzie
Drama (1h 26m)
Rosie may have slipped under your radar, but it's certainly worth the watch. A hard-hitting drama that's sure to break your heart, Rosie delivers an important message about real homelessness for families and kids.
Rosie Davis (played by Sarah Greene) is kicked out of her house and forced to live in her car with her husband and four young children. While searching for a place to stay the night, the couple shield their kids from the situation—which is difficult, to say the least.
Paddy Breathnach's impactful Irish drama is set in Dublin, where economic insecurity makes Rosie hit home for many viewers. Rosie might not have an all-star cast or flashy special effects, but there's strength in its honesty to tell a story with no easy solutions.
12. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Starring Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Thandiwe Newton
Biography, Drama (1h 57m)
The Pursuit of Happyness is so heart-breaking because it's true. Gabriele Muccino's biographical drama stars Will Smith as Chris Gardner, a salesman left homeless with his five-year-old son.
Not only does Chris have to balance finding shelter and food with raising a child, he's also an unpaid intern hoping to become a stockbroker.
With the vague promise of a stable future, Chris refuses to give up on his impossibly stressful life, juggling every problem you can think of.
What makes The Pursuit of Happyness so poignant is the fact Smith's own son, Jaden Smith, plays young Christopher Jr. With impeccable performances from both actors, the core of this film is a father-son bond that pushes Chris through all adversity.
11. The White Tiger (2021)
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Starring Adarsh Gourav, Rajkummar Rao, Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Crime, Drama (2h 5m)
"Here in India, there are only two kinds of people: those with big bellies and those with small bellies." Balram Halwa (Adarsh Gourav) has a small belly, and like most of his kind, he's bound to serve the food that makes his superiors have big ones.
Despite his intellect, Balram is a servant to the rich village landlord due to his own father's debt. At first, it seems like no amount of face-slapping will hinder his loyalty to the Stork family—but then a car accident shakes him into changing his tune.
Aravind Adiga's original debut novel compares the poverty line to living inside a chicken coop. His exploration of class and corruption in India won him the Man Booker Prize, and his story was eventually turned into this Oscar-nominated Netflix film, directed by Ramin Bahrani.
10. The Florida Project (2017)
Directed by Sean Baker
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
Drama (1h 51m)
What's special about The Florida Project is that it's told from the perspective of the mischievous-but-kind-hearted young Moonee (played by Brooklynn Prince).
Via low-angle camera shots, we experience the Magic Castle Motel in Florida through the eyes of a six-year-old.
Moonee's mother, Halley (played by Bria Vinaite), is young, single, and poor, surviving in the week-by-week hotel using the scarce money she earns as an exotic dancer.
This leaves Moonee to run around the parking lot—unsupervised and pulling pranks—all summer long. This lifestyle isn't sustainable, and Moonee becomes witness to things no child should see.
Sean Baker's A24 flick is stunningly shot and beautifully told, painting an accurate and touching portrait of poverty in America.
9. Precious (2009)
Directed by Lee Daniels
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Paula Patton
Drama (1h 50m)
Poverty isn't just a financial struggle. It reaches its claws into all kinds of problems like an environmental poison that seeps into every area of life, and that's what we see in Precious.
Sapphire—author of the 1996 novel Push—shows us an extreme case where the young Precious is subject to incestuous rape, domestic abuse, illiteracy, bullying, and eating disorders, which all come around as an indirect result of living on welfare.
Lee Daniels adapted the novel into this unflinching portrayal of urban poverty in America, where Gabourey Sidibe's impressive acting debut as Precious will make you grateful for all the trivial problems in your life.
The saddest thing about Precious is that this story is a reality for many. Lee Daniels was initially hesitant to submit Precious to Cannes because "white French people [don't want] to see our world." When he did, the film earned a 15-minute standing ovation.
8. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Directed by John Schlesinger
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles
Drama (1h 53m)
Joe Buck (played by Jon Voight) and Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo (played by Dustin Hoffman) form an unlikely duo in John Schlesinger's buddy drama. Based on James Leo Herlihy's novel, Midnight Cowboy won three Oscars and is the only X-rated movie to win Best Picture.
Joe is a sex worker with barely any clients, while Ratso is a conman whose health is failing. The two desperate men squat together in a condemned New York City apartment, forming a "business" relationship as hustlers.
Midnight Cowboy is particularly popular in the LGBTQ+ community for its implied homosexual themes, earning the film an X-rating for its "possible influence upon youngsters."
Aside from this, Midnight Cowboy uses dramatic realism to portray the seedy underbelly of NYC, where beneath the glamour of Hollywood lies the underdogs—ones who will do anything for a paycheck.
7. Sorry We Missed You (2019)
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring Kris Hitchen, Debbie Honeywood, Rhys Mcgowan
Drama (1h 41m)
Sorry We Missed You boasts a realist tone, navigating the landscape of debt and poverty in modern day Britain.
Following the 2008 financial crash, Ricky (played by Kris Hitchen) is drowning in debt and struggling to provide for his wife and two kids.
The couple lack the support of a solid education yet work full-time, rarely having time to see their kids during their most pivotal ages.
Ricky's job as a delievery van driver has tight time restrictions and pressures he never expected, while Abbie (played by Debbie Honeywood) has to sell the family car for money.
Everything's a tousle in Ken Loach's brittle British drama that brims with stress and tediousness.
6. Fish Tank (2009)
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing
Drama (2h 3m)
Before Michael Fassbender became a famous Hollywood star, he appeared in indie films like Fish Tank.
Like Sorry We Missed You, Fish Tank depicts working class life in modern Britain. Directed by Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, funded by the BBC and UK Film Council.
Told from the perspective of 15-year-old Mia Williams (played by Katie Jarvis), the film takes place on an East London council estate, where she lives with her single mother and little sister.
Mia is volatile, aggressive, and verbally abused by her mother, constantly arguing with her friends and family. When her mother's new boyfriend arrives on scene, Conor (played by Michael Fassbender) begins flirting with Mia and manipulating her troubled, naïve youth.
5. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal
Crime, Drama, Romance (2h)
After starring in the iconic British teen show Skins, Dev Patel went on to make Slumdog Millionaire. Loosely based on the 2005 novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup, this sleeper-hit centers on 18-year-old Jamal Malik's appearance on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Just before he's about to hit the jackpot, Jamal (played by Dev Patel) is suspected of cheating and tortured by the police. Director Danny Boyle recounts Jamal's life through a series of flashbacks from when he was growing up in the slums of Mumbai.
Unlike the council estates of other films on this list, Slumdog Millionaire gives viewers a glimpse into poverty on the other side of the world. Jamal is picked up by gangsters as a young boy and trained as a beggar, all while witnessing the horrors of life on the streets of India.
4. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell
Drama (1h 29m)
Unlike Hollywood's Golden Age, Italy's own Golden Age of cinema didn't feature any gold or big studio budgets. Instead, it was made up of neorealist films and amateur actors—and one major work of the movement was Vittorio De Sica's poignant drama Bicycle Thieves.
Originally a novel by Luigi Bartolini, Bicycle Thieves shows us how important and life-changing little things are to the poor.
Whereas rich people look down on the idea of riding a bike from limousine windows, a bike means the world to Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani). Without his pawned bicycle, Antonio is unable to carry out his job and feed his family.
Bicycle Thieves is set against the backdrop of post-WW2 Rome, where neorealist cinema flourished after the bombings of Italy's major studios. The movement also helped shape the Iranian New Wave.
3. City of God (2002)
Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Matheus Nachtergaele
Crime, Drama (2h 10m)
If there's one foreign-language film that most people have seen, it's the brutal and bloody City of God (or Cidade de Deus in Portuguese).
The film accurately—savagely—depicts the growth of organized crime in the slums of Cidade de Deus, Brazil. Specifically, the gang war that raged from the 1960s to the 1980s.
The impoverished neighborhood gives birth to three young thieves, introducing them to a world of crime, drugs, and warfare. The story is a blend of real events and work of Paulo Lins in his 1997 novel of the same name, told with merciless grit and melodrama.
The authenticity of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's Brazilian crime drama comes from the fact that they cast everyday people and filmed in the real-life favelas of Rio. A risky move, but worth it for the universal acclaim that City of God received.
2. I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Directed by Ken Loach
Starring Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy
Drama (1h 40m)
Ken Loach loves a good dramatic social critique, and I, Daniel Blake is undoubtedly his most famous work. It's regarded as one of the most important British films of the 21st century, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2016 and a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film.
It follows 59-year-old widower Daniel (played by Dave Johns) whose heart attack makes him unfit for work. The strings and trials of the benefits system make getting money a near-impossible task, frustrating both Daniel and the audience.
Daniel befriends single mother Katie (played by Hayley Squires), who lives between homeless shelters while starving and selling herself to afford dinner for her children.
I, Daniel Blake is a depressing but necessary watch to better understand the complex issues of unemployment, where many rely on food banks and benefits just to survive (but never really thrive).
1. Parasite (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Starring Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong
Drama, Thriller (2h 12m)
Pretty much everyone cheered when Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2020. Why? Because it's an incredible, unpredictable, socially relevant masterpiece for cinema.
Director Bong Joon-ho shocked us over and over again in this twisting South Korean thriller that's injected with bouts of black comedy. Dark themes, bleak humor, and clever symbolism convey the state of poverty in modern South Korea, forcing the Kim family into extreme measures.
The four Kims live in a cramped basement in Seoul, surviving off temp jobs folding pizza boxes. When the opportunity arises for Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) to pose as a University student and tutor the daughter of a wealthy family, the whole family decide to get in on it.
The Kims hatch a plan to overtake the glossy Park family house, but end up with more than they bargained for.