A recent conversation in my Bible study turned to how we interact with people who are different from us. I assumed we’d talk about differences of ethnicity or religion, but the discussion focused on generational differences instead. The group is all recent college graduates, and we considered how we talk about boomers and millennials—but also how they talk about us as members of Gen Z.
There are tensions in those differences, but believers of older generations have also discipled and prayed for us. And soon after that conversation, I was reminded again of the deep value of those relationships in a place I least expected: Adam Sandler’s new Netflix kids’ movie, Leo.
Leo centers on a class pet lizard (voiced by Sandler) who suddenly learns he has just one year left to live. The realization forces him to consider what he wants to do with his remaining time, and his initial idea is to escape the classroom and explore the world. His bucket list includes hunting a fly, seeing the Everglades, and showing his moves to a lady lizard.
Leo’s escape plans are thwarted when the teacher decides he’ll be sent home with a different student each weekend. Soon, he finds himself less focused on flies and ladies and more interested in counseling the kids in his class, talking them through social dynamics, grief, and even early puberty.
Some of this happens in song—Leo is an entertaining musical with songs both satirical and thoughtful. The animation style varies throughout the film, distinguishing flashbacks and hypotheticals from the primary narrative. (A family member of mine was an artist on the film, but that relationship did not influence this review.) For younger viewers, the plot is easy to follow—a more straightforward storyline than many children’s films released in the past few years.
What’s also unusual is the decision to not make the main character a child or young adult. There are exceptions—most notably Pixar’s Up—but children’s films often allow kids to see themselves in the protagonist. Children may identify with one or more of the students Leo gets to know (so may adults, for that matter). But centering the film on the aging Leo pushes even young children to consider a fresh perspective: How are we spending our limited time? And how are we relating across generational lines in our own lives?
Leo eventually makes the decision to invest in the younger generation instead of chasing adventure. He spends time listening, consoling, and loving the students. Were Leo not a talking lizard and Leo not an Adam Sandler movie, we might even say he disciples them.
In the process, Leo models not only the importance of intergenerational friendships in a historically lonely time but also the importance of their mutuality. Younger people owe respect to elders (1 Pet. 5:5) and should heed their wisdom (Titus 2:4–8), but we also need space to dialogue and ask questions without fear of judgment or rejection. Young and old alike need real friendship in which each side can graciously help and learn from the other, like Naomi and Ruth, Moses and Joshua, Paul and Timothy.
At one point, Leo sings one student, Mia, a lullaby about how pathetic it is to cry. At first the scene rubbed me the wrong way, but Mia politely chuckles, pulls out a science book, and explains that crying releases endorphins and can help you feel better. Later in the film, when Leo is moved to tears, he turns to Mia and acknowledges that she has helped him just as he helped her. “You’re right about the endorphins,” he says. “It really feels awesome.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes understood how this works long before Leo did: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up” (4:9–10). In friendship, we are uniquely able to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24–25).
This kind of intimate counsel and mutual support can be difficult across generational lines. But that difficulty shouldn’t discourage us. Like every generation of young people before us, Gen Z needs and wants to hear our elders’ stories. We want to be discipled by you, to “come alongside and participate in a thousand situations,” as David Brooks puts it in The Second Mountain. We want to learn from you, and maybe, sometimes, teach you something too.
Leo’s bond with his fifth-grade class is transformational for lizard and students alike. He gains companionship, purpose, and new energy for life. And they learn to love him, ultimately giving up a long-expected treat to instead rescue their friend.
At the end of the film, Leo breaks the fourth wall, telling viewers to find a “Leo,” an older mentor, of their own. “They are ready to listen,” he says. “I promise they will make you feel better.” So they will. But among Christians, we are promised something deeper and longer-lasting than an improved mood: Our friendships across generations can help us in our journeys as followers of Christ.
Mia Staub is the content manager at Christianity Today.