man called otto

7 Kindness Lessons from “A Man Called Otto”

A Man Called Otto, Tom Hanks’ latest movie, provides a lot more than just a couple of hours of entertainment. This dramedy tackles serious topics such as death, suicide, and mental health. But with empowering life lessons around the profound impact of kindness, viewers are left feeling uplifted and hopeful.

A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman

The movie, A Man Called Otto, is the remake of the 2015 Swedish film, A Man Called Ove, which was anadaptation of the best-selling novel by Frederik Backman, A Man Called Ove. (

WARNING: This article contains spoilers.

When I read Backman’s book last fall, I was inspired to write this article. But decided to wait when I discovered that a Tom Hanks remake was imminent. I was thrilled. You can’t ask for a better way to disseminate valuable lessons to a broader audience. Without further ado, here they are.

7 Kindness Lessons from A Man Called Otto

1. Everyone has a unique story. We shouldn’t assume we know it.

What sets this story apart from others is the unpredictable behavior of Tom Hanks’ character, Otto (or Ove in the original novel). This curmudgeon perpetually presents himself with a grimace and a seemingly bad attitude towards life. That is, until someone takes the time to understand his story.

I frequently find myself making snap judgments about a person and their life situation by the clothes they wear, the car they drive–the image they present. This story demonstrates that we can be very wrong.

There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.

– Mary Lou Kownacki

2. People want to help. Everyone wants to feel useful.

I think it’s difficult to ask for help. But, people really do want to lend a hand. They just don’t always know how. Otto seems too angry to want to help anyone besides himself. Knowing his story is key in understanding the real reason. The anger stemmed from a lack of purpose and meaning in life. As a result, doing for others transforms his life.

Angela Santomero is the creator of award-winning children’s television shows such as, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Blues Clues. Inspired by Fred Rogers, Santomero strives to encourage kindness and good will in her productions.

In her book, Radical Kindness: The Life-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving, Santomero recounted a time when the main character of Blue’s Clues, Steve, requested help for his puppy, Blue. It perfectly demonstrates this valuable kindness lesson:

We wanted to reach out and give the kids at home an opportunity to help, to be an active part of our world. Steve leans in close to the camera, makes eye contact with the children watching, and asks them, “Can you help me?” The first time he did this, it was as if he had said, “Abracadabra!” Those four words were magic. Kids jumped up, pointed to clues, and talked back to Steve. And in every episode thereafter, we used those four magic words.

-Angela Santomero
blues-clues-can you help me
Courtesy of Nickelodeon

3. Friendships can grow anywhere and with anyone.

One of my favorite parts of this story is watching the unlikely friendship between the two main characters develop. Otto is an elderly white man with a sour disposition who has lived in the same house for decades. Marisol is a vivacious, pregnant, young Mexican woman who is new to the country. Yet they find out those are not the things that matter for a friendship to grow.

4. Sometimes you must dig deep to find gold. Don’t give up on people.

Backman wouldn’t have a story at all if this wasn’t a lesson. The endearing persistence of Marisol to break into Otto’s life and heart is inspirational.

5. Kindness is a boomerang: helping others helps you too.

Otto was deeply entrenched in a mental health crisis; he was suicidal. Completely lost after the death of his wife and forced early retirement, he had lost his sense of purpose in the world.

Realizing the people in his life were in need, Otto resurfaced. Engaging with his community and assisting others, he found he didn’t have the time to take his own life. He was too busy helping others.

Evidence shows that helping others can also benefit our own mental health and wellbeing. For example, it can reduce stress as well as improve mood, self-esteem and happiness.

6. Small acts of kindness can make a big impact. They can even save a life.

As Otto was “diligently” suicidal, Marisol’s frequent “interruptions” with a home-cooked meal or checking in on him literally saved his life.

Of course, their situation is exaggerated for dramatic effect, but it makes a valid point. We don’t always know people’s life situation–their story. What seems like a small act to us can make a profound impact on someone else.

7. Don’t give up. Things can always get better.

I imagine this is probably the most difficult lesson to embrace, especially if you’re feeling as desperate as Otto. But keeping in mind that we never know what’s around the corner can summon hope. Things can always change. It’s always worth it to reach out for help.

Suicide & Crisis Lifeline–CALL 988 (In the United States)

From their website: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States. We’re committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness.

If you’re outside of the U.S., PLEASE reach out to your local crisis hotline or healthcare provider.

“Human beings want to be useful. When we help, we feel empowered, our self-worth skyrockets, and our bonds with other people become stronger.”
-Angela Santomero

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