210 Best Social Issue Dramas Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

Understated in budget but lavished with praise, this semi-autobiographical drama by Daniel Destin Cretton flings its audience into the chaotic lives and personal crises of at-risk youths and the passionate social workers that aid them. In his first feature film, the young director draws the viewers into the storm of events and the emotional ups-and-downs of social work in America, going from uplifting to depressing and back – and every emotion in-between.

Set in the real-life and eponymous group home Short Term 12, devoted but troubled foster-care worker Grace is played by Brie Larson, whose shining performance in her first leading role was lauded by critics. Fans will also recognize the supporting actors Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek, who broke out in this movie. Short Term 12 is now considered one of the most important movies of 2013 – some say of the decade – owing to its immaculate writing, intimate camerawork, and gripping performances.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alex Calloway, Angelina Assereto, Brie Larson, Diana Maria Riva, Frantz Turner, Harold Cannon, Joel P. West, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Keith Stanfield, Kevin Hernandez, Lakeith Stanfield, Lydia Du Veaux, Melora Walters, Michelle Nordahl, Mohammad Shiravi, Rami Malek, Silvia Curiel, Stephanie Beatriz

Director: Destin Cretton, Destin Daniel Cretton

Rating: R

This is the true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Black man in Oakland, California, who was shot dead by police in the morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Incidentally, 2009 was also the time when smartphones started going mainstream, and so the incident was not only captured by CCTV but also many private cell phone cameras. The murder went viral.

Grant is superbly played by Michael B. Jordan in what now counts as one of his breakthrough roles, when many only knew him as Wallace in the now-legendary crime drama The Wire. Director Ryan Coogler went on making two more movies with him, including Black Panther in 2018.

Produced by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and compassionately told, Fruitvale Station surpasses the sadness of its subject matter and amounts to an extraordinary celebration of life. A must-watch.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Ahna O'Reilly, Alessandro Garcia, Ariana Neal, Caroline Lesley, Chad Michael Murray, Chris Riedell, Christina Elmore, Denzel Worthington, Destiny Ekwueme, Joey Oglesby, John Burke, Jonez Cain, Keenan Coogler, Kevin Durand, Laurel Moglen, Liisa Cohen, Maleah Nipay-Padilla, Melonie Diaz, Michael B. Jordan, Nicole Maxali, Noah Staggs, Noah Zavala, Octavia Spencer, Robert Ajlouny, Ruben Rivera, Ryan Coogler, Tamera Tomakili, Trestin George, William Armando

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rating: R

Revealing the gaps in the social safety net, I, Daniel Blake, is a tale centered around a blue collar worker navigating the welfare system in England. At a time where class and social mobility could not be more politically salient, this film calls into question the notion of the “citizen” and exposes the inaccessibility to the social protections in which one presumes entitlement. At the forefront of this, is a heart-warming parable of paternal companionship between Daniel (played by Dave Johns) and a single mother – Katie – (played by Hayley Squires) who is wading through similar terrain. The acting in the film is unfathomably raw which cultivates the deepest source of gut wrenching compassion. Ken Loach has created a film that exposes the true power of empathy, leaving you feeling helplessly human.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Briana Shann, Dan Li, Dave Johns, David Murray, Dylan McKiernan, Hayley Squires, Kate Rutter, Kema Sikazwe, Ken Loach, Li Dan, Malcolm Shields, Natalie Ann Jamieson, Sharon Percy, Shaun Prendergast, Stephen Clegg, Steven Richens, Viktoria Kay

Director: Ken Loach

Rating: R

Based on a classic Japanese folktale, Isao Takahata’s last film will break your heart. This adaptation, of course, follows Princess Kaguya from her being discovered in a glowing bamboo stalk to her departure to the moon. However, while faithful to the original tale, Takahata’s direction turns this historical fantasy into a heart-wrenching coming-of-age film as ethereal as the titular character. The film doesn’t focus on the crazy pursuit of her suitors; instead, we’re drawn to the simple experiences Kaguya herself is drawn to and wants more of, as she tries to balance her life with the societal expectations places on women. All of which is rendered through the film's lush watercolored scenes of the blowing wind or the opening of plum blossoms.

Genre: Animation, Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Aki Asakura, Atsuko Takahata, Hikaru Ijūin, Isao Hashizume, Kengo Kora, Mirai Uchida, Nobuko Miyamoto, Ryudo Uzaki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Shinosuke Tatekawa, Takaya Kamikawa, Takeo Chii, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tomoko Tabata, Yuji Miyake, Yukiji Asaoka

Director: Isao Takahata

Rating: PG

How far would you go to help a friend? The answer to this question might turn out quite differently after you have lived through the 2-hour squalor of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Set in the bleak late-1980s reality of Communist Romania, under the ironclad rule of Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasilu play Otilia and Gabriela, two small-town students. Otilia volunteers to help Gabriela go through with an illegal abortion, which takes place in a shoddy hotel room with the help of a man named Bebe (played by Vlad Ivanov). When things don't go as planned, they find their situations quickly going from very bad to outright horrible. Powerful performances, a realistic script, and director Cristian Mungiu's technical finesse create an experience that will force you to relive the desperation the two women must endure. Little wonder that it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2007.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Adi Carauleanu, Adina Cristescu, Alexandru Potocean, Anamaria Marinca, Cerasela Iosifescu, Constantin Bojog, Doru Ana, Eugenia Bosânceanu, Geo Dobre, Ion Sapdaru, Laura Vasiliu, Liliana Mocanu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Mădălina Ghițescu, Mărioara Sterian, Tania Popa, Teodor Corban, Vlad Ivanov

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Rating: Not Rated

The British social-critical director of I, Daniel Blake and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach, delivers another scathing indictment of our economic system, the slashing of worker protection, and the gig economy. While these are indeed the themes of this affecting drama, Loach always makes it about the people. In this case, a struggling family man who tries to turn his life around by working in package delivery. Gig economy workers are usually freelancers who own their trucks and are made fully responsible for packages until they reach their respective recipients. From peeing in a bottle to save time to seamless monitoring by an overlord hand-held device, Sorry We Missed You manages to capture the indignity and gives you an intimate introduction to the human cost of having everything delivered to your doorstep at a moment's notice. Thanks to Loach's use of amateur actors, it has a raw and real feel to it without being melodramatic. Sorry We Missed You makes sure that the habitually unseen take center stage.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Charlie Richmond, Debbie Honeywood, Katie Proctor, Kris Hitchen, Maxie Peters, Rhys Mcgowan, Rhys Stone, Ross Brewster, Sheila Dunkerley, Stephen Clegg, Vicky Hall

Director: Ken Loach

Rating: 0, 12

The title of this 2018 Palme D'or winner is not to be taken metaphorically: Shoplifters is about a marginalized family of day workers, crooks, and small-time outlaws, who live on the fringes of Japanese society. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) both have jobs but spruce up their low-wage income by committing petty crimes. One day in winter, Osamu takes in a bruised girl he finds outside in the cold and introduces her to the family in his ramshackle house. But when the second-youngest member of the family, Shota (Kairi Jyo), finds himself teaching her how to shoplift, he faces a moral dilemma that threatens to unravel the family's fabric. If you were hitherto unfamiliar with the unique storytelling and social realism of Hirokazu Koreeda, we really recommend checking it out—as well as his other movies, namely, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son, I Wish, and After the Storm. His 2018 outing features the last ever performance of Kirin Kiki, who plays the elderly matriarch and passed away that same year. Like many of Koreeda's works, Shoplifters is an understated, beautiful, and mysterious study of the effects of poverty and trauma and a delicate portrait of a family in Japan's urban underbelly.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Family, Thriller

Actor: Aju Makita, Akira Emoto, Chizuru Ikewaki, Hajime Inoue, Haruna Hori, Jyo Kairi, Kairi Jo, Kairi Jyo, Kengo Kora, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Mayu Matsuoka, Miyu Sasaki, Moemi Katayama, Nana Mizoguchi, Naoto Ogata, Sakura Andô, Sosuke Ikematsu, Yoko Moriguchi, Yuki Yamada, 山田裕貴, 松冈茉优, 蒔田 彩珠

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hirokazu Koreeda

Rating: R

Nothing about Saint Omer is easy. A female Senegalese migrant (Guslagie Malanga) is put to trial for committing infanticide, but throughout the film, it becomes clear how much of a victim she is too, of an uncaring and deeply prejudiced society. “What drove her to madness?” Her attorney asks at one point. We’re not sure. We're not necessarily asked to side with her, nor answer the many hard-hitting questions brought up in the film, but we sit with the uneasiness of it all and, in that silence, confront our ideas about motherhood, womanhood, personhood. 

This confusion is what makes the film so compelling. Despite the court’s best efforts, Laurence isn’t meant to be understood. She’s meant to be an example of the ever-ambiguous, forever-complicated, always-hurt person. It’s human nature after all to be this complex and messed up. The film shows us that the best that we can do in situations like this is to listen, understand, and as our protagonist Rama (Kayije Kagame) does, make peace with the noise. 

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Aurelia Petit, Guslagie Malanda, Kayije Kagame, Louise Lemoine Torrès, Salimata Kamate, Thomas De Pourquery, Valérie Dréville, Xavier Maly

Director: Alice Diop

Persepolis is the true story of Marjane Satrapi, the writer and illustrator whose graphic novels of the same name the film is adapted from. It details in vivid animation the trials of growing up in war-torn Iran, but also, crucially, the joys of being raised by a loving family and the significance of forming one’s own ideals and identity. In between revolving dictatorships and tightening restrictions, Marjane comes into her own and discovers what it means to live a meaningful life.

It’s a testament to Satrapi’s many talents that Persepolis never feels too flat or cynical given its 2D style and bleak backdrop. The drawings impressively morph with Marjane’s every thought, as if the ink itself were alive, and her wit persistently comes through in sharp observations and dialogues. Equally impressive is the film’s commitment to portraying war and conflict in a nuanced manner. In an autobiographical tale that is about Marjane’s coming of age as much as it is about her country’s survival, it’s never been more true that the personal is political.

Genre: Animation, Drama, History, War

Actor: Arié Elmaleh, Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, Danielle Darrieux, François Jerosme, Gabrielle Lopes Benites, Mathias Mlekuz, Simon Abkarian, Sophie Arthuys, Tilly Mandelbrot

Director: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

Rating: PG-13

With Howards End, the magic trio of producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala converted yet another turn-of-the-19th-century EM Forster novel into exquisite cinematic form. Ravishingly shot and performed to career-best heights by many of its cast, Howards End loses nothing of the elegance we expect from a period drama, and yet it also feels thoroughly modern. The film charts the tragic entwining of three families: the progressive and intellectual middle-class Schlegel sisters, the much more traditionally minded and wealthier Wilcox family, and the Basts, a down-on-their-luck working-class couple. It’s the liberally minded Schlegels who cross the class divide of 1910 London to bring these two distant social circles so close to each other, but it’s the old-world values of the Wilcoxes that make that meeting a tragic one. Simmering with rich emotion and crackling with class politics, Howards End is the crowning glory of the Merchant Ivory powerhouse and the rare perfect period drama.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Adrian Ross Magenty, Allie Byrne, Anne Lambton, Anthony Hopkins, Barbara Hicks, Brian Lipson, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Gerald Paris, Helena Bonham Carter, James Ivory, James Wilby, Jemma Redgrave, Jo Kendall, Joseph Bennett, Margery Mason, Mark Payton, Mark Tandy, Mary McWilliams, Nicola Duffett, Patricia Lawrence, Peter Cellier, Prunella Scales, Sally Geoghegan, Samuel West, Simon Callow, Susie Lindeman, Vanessa Redgrave

Director: James Ivory

Rating: PG

An inspired by true events tale about an elderly Irish woman trying to find the child she was forced to give up many years earlier. Steve Coogan co-wrote the script and, though the base story is a tragic one, his special brand of very subtle, wry wit is apparent in the dialogue throughout. Judi Dench plays the mother who had kept her “sinful” past a secret for fifty years and, being Judi Dench, I don’t need to bother going on about her exemplary talent, suffice to say she’s charming beyond measure in the role. Steven Frears directs, as usual, deftly, and keeps the story compelling scene after scene, intensifying the emotions inherent to each, whether they be heart-warming, comedic, or outright enraging. Whoever decided to let Steve Coogan have his way with the script, it was a brave and wise choice and together this cast and crew have produced a wonderful and important piece of cinema.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Amber Batty, Amy McAllister, Anna Maxwell Martin, Barbara Jefford, Cathy Belton, Charissa Shearer, Charles Edwards, Charlie Murphy, Elliot Levey, Florence Keith-Roach, Frankie McCafferty, Gary Lilburn, Judi Dench, Kate Fleetwood, Mare Winningham, Marie Jones, Martin Glyn Murray, Michelle Fairley, Nicholas Jones, Nika McGuigan, Paris Arrowsmith, Peter Hermann, Ruth McCabe, Sara Stewart, Sean Mahon, Simone Lahbib, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Steve Coogan, Wunmi Mosaku

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: PG-13

Based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando is a fitting adaptation for a groundbreaking story. Changing from man to woman, the titular time traveler is portrayed by the incomparable Tilda Swinton, breaking the fourth wall as if daring anyone to question her casting. But Swinton’s androgynous look and stellar acting make her the perfect choice for this. Her gaze is the anchor that we hold on to as the film glides through the novel’s multiple themes with ease. Through director Grace Potter’s indescribable vision, they create a fantastic film that blurs gender, sex, identity, and time together with the original novel itself.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy

Actor: Anna Farnworth, Anna Healy, Barbara Hicks, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, Cyril Lecomte, Dudley Sutton, George Antoni, Heathcote Williams, Jerome Willis, Jessica Swinton, Jimmy Somerville, John Grillo, John Wood, Kathryn Hunter, Lothaire Bluteau, Martin Wimbush, Mary MacLeod, Matthew Sim, Oleg Pogodin, Olivia Lancelot, Peter Eyre, Quentin Crisp, Robert Demeger, Roger Hammond, Sara Mair-Thomas, Sarah Crowden, Simon Russell Beale, Thom Hoffman, Tilda Swinton, Toby Jones, Toby Stephens, Viktor Stepanov

Director: Sally Potter

Rating: PG-13

Joyland is groundbreaking on nearly all accounts. It’s the first Pakistani film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and to be shortlisted for an Oscar. Its forthright depiction of trans life and gender identity provoked the ire of local authorities, but it also inspired a nationwide movement (#ReleaseJoyland) that fought against censorship. It’s understandable, then, if the film is remembered for these disruptive achievements alone, but it should be noted that Joyland, as it is, is simply a stunning piece of cinema. 

Every scene is beautifully blocked and vibrantly lit, like a painting come to life, and every one of them is rich with meaning; there’s not a second we’re not diving deeper into the wonderfully complex lives of these people, all of whom are exploring sexuality and independence as best they can in a restricted environment. And sure, Biba and Haider’s relationship takes center stage as it reveals the nuances of queer love, but Joyland just as deftly tackles toxic masculinity (and how it’s a specter that haunts Haider’s household), domestic labor (and how it largely goes unnoticed), and female solidarity (and how it can literally save a girl’s life). Heartbreaking and lovely, this a family saga in that it’s as much about Haider’s family as it is about him, and it’s a shame if it weren’t remembered as such. 

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Ramiz Law, Rasti Farooq, Salmaan Peerzada, Sania Saeed, Sarwat Gilani, Sohail Sameer

Director: Saim Sadiq

A relevant and deeply entertaining movie that only has the appearance of being about politics. In reality, it is about television, and one brilliant journalist’s pursuit of the perfect interview.  Richard Nixon stepped away from the public eye after the Watergate scandal, and was counting on a series of interviews three years later to redeem himself. His team assigns an unlikely reporter to sit in front of him, a British reality TV host named David Frost. Both men have everything to gain from this interview by going against each other, as Frost tries to extract a confession of wrongdoing in Watergate that Nixon never gave.  Who will win? The master manipulator or the up-and-coming journalist? Frost / Nixon was originally a play, and this adaptation is full of drama and boosts great dialogue.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Andy Milder, Clint Howard, Eloy Casados, Frank Langella, Gabriel Jarret, Gavin Grazer, Geoffrey Blake, Jenn Gotzon Chandler, Jim Meskimen, Kate Jennings Grant, Keith MacKechnie, Kevin Bacon, Mark Simich, Matthew Macfadyen, Max Elliott Slade, Michael Sheen, Oliver Platt, Patty McCormack, Penny L. Moore, Rance Howard, Rebecca Hall, Sam Rockwell, Simon James, Toby Jones, Wil Albert, Yvette Rachelle

Director: Ron Howard

Rating: R

All Quiet on the Western Front is a period epic that unflinchingly shows us the savagery and senselessness of war. Set at the tail end of World War I, it follows two main stories: that of German soldier Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer), whose boyish eagerness for warfare is diminished with each bloody step he takes towards the frontline, and that of Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl), the real-life German politician tasked to negotiate a ceasefire between the French and German forces.

Grim and sobering, the movie will leave you nothing less than stunned after viewing. Like 1917 before it, All Quiet on the Western Front relies on the juxtaposition of raw brutality and peaceful quiet to effectively forward its anti-war message. The film is Germany’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards.

Genre: Action, Drama, History, War

Actor: Aaron Hilmer, Adrian Grünewald, Albrecht Schuch, André Marcon, Andreas Döhler, Anthony Paliotti, Anton von Lucke, Cyril Dobrý, Dan Brown, Daniel Brühl, Daniel-Frantisek Kamen, Devid Striesow, Edin Hasanović, Felix Kammerer, Felix von Bredow, Gregory Gudgeon, Hendrik Heutmann, Jakob Diehl, Joe Weintraub, Luc Feit, Marek Simbersky, Markus Tomczyk, Martin Němec, Michael Pitthan, Michael Stange, Michael Wittenborn, Moritz Klaus, Nico Ehrenteit, Peter Sikorski, Sascha Nathan, Sebastian Hülk, Sebastian Jacques, Thibault de Montalembert, Tobias Langhoff, Tomáš Weber

Director: Edward Berger

Rating: R