There are several documentaries at Sundance this year that focus on teens of America, from Oakland to El Paso. In fact, this expedition of three loosely connected films doesn’t even include some teen-centric non-fiction films that will be covered later as “Cusp.” Why this trend in 2021? Why are children on our minds as we enter a new decade and leave one of the worst years in world history behind? This may be a question that answers itself.
Best of Three is a personality-driven play called “Try harder!” which profiles five students at San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell High School, revealing the varied stories to tell of a learning institute that might appear from the outside as filled with the same type of personality. Director Debbie Lum carefully deconstructs the lives of overachievers who go through the brutal and rigorous process of applying to college, a process that can often seem haphazard and unfair. Even the smartest and hardest working kids can’t be guaranteed that they’ll get into the colleges they choose. But Lum’s approach is far from depressing (although some aspects of this film play out like a horror flick for parents with under-high school kids like yours really), choosing instead to really take a look. Character-driven on these people, finding their differences and allowing their personalities to shine, revealing how a process that often turns kids into numbers and demographics can miss the true stories below.
Take the arc of Shea, a junior who puts up with an addicted dad who’s gone all night to feed his demons when he doesn’t get the couple kicked out. Shea endures it largely because he can’t go live with his mother or he couldn’t attend Lowell. His home life is influenced by his choice of education, and he’s not even in college yet. Or Alvan, a sweet young man whose mother is what some might call intrusive in his life and in his decisions about his future. These children face constant stress, and yet Lum takes care to present their playful and happy sides as well. Everyone is friendly and open with Lum, which is a testament to her skill as a filmmaker and interviewer.
The truth is college is everything for kids who attend school like Lowell… but neither is it. They should be teenagers and understand unfamiliar real-world challenges, such as not entering school even if everything you’ve done is right. I would like love to see these children again Michael apted style in four to five years and see what it all means for their future. I expect their stories to be even more diverse, unique and compelling than they are now.
Across the Bay in Oakland, a different kind of documentary about teenage lives unfolds Peter Nicks‘ “Homeroom”, the story of a very unusual year for education around the world. Nicks has now made three films about life in Oakland, including the excellent “StrengthFrom 2017. Here he turns to the education system and grasps how many issues that were going to surface in 2020 via the pandemic and the protests were there before. Above all, he made a truly uplifting film about the youth of this nation, finding a passionate and fascinating group of teenagers at Oakland High School and following them throughout the 2019-2020 school year, one that took place like no other.
Nicks takes a truthful approach to his subject matter, following students from a distance through the ups and downs of their senior year in high school, letting them tell their own stories. The first half focuses on a debate that would echo “Defund the Police” months later, as students and community members fight over the council to remove police officers from Oakland High School. Like a little too much of “Homeroom”, I could have watched these board meetings for hours, Wiseman-style. The debate over adults who think officers keep their children safe from students by telling them that uniforms are not safe for many young people is fascinating. And it’s wonderful to hear these young people discussing their concerns so openly, even though many of them often seem to fall on deaf ears.
If there’s one flaw in “Homeroom,” it’s that there is so much story to tell about 2019-20 in a 90 minute film. It wasn’t until halfway through that Nicks realized the impact of COVID – loved hearing from a teenager who was convinced that if you got the flu shot then you were fine at first – and then he rushes through the protests of May 2020 and graduation. . There have been so many docu-series lately that could have been better movies. “Homeroom” is the opposite, often going through moments and highlights that would have been stronger with more dissection and discussion. Again, time flies when you’re a teenager.
Finally, there is the complex “By hand”, which shifts the documentary focus from Sundance to Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, ten miles from the border. Director Maisie Crow introduces viewers to an incredibly unusual thing about the Criminal Justice Club, where teens are trained in how to conduct raids, stop illegal immigrants, and fight active shooters in a way that ends even by a competition with false weapons and obstacles. Most of the participants are Mexican Americans with an interest in a legal border and law enforcement in general, but these choices often lead to problems at home and internal conflict when teens in learn more about the real world. At the beginning, “At the Ready” seems a bit repetitive and even thin, but Crow’s deep empathy allows his subjects to open up, and we come to care about someone like Kassy, a child who really accept so much out of the world playing fake border war games.
“At the Ready” feels like a reflection of the complexities of the part of the world in which it takes place. It seems like a land of contradictions at first, but Crow is careful in how she structures her story so as not to judge young people at its center. I am not sure the same is true for adults. One of Crow and his team’s best editing comes late in the film when a teacher of students enrolled in the Border Patrol and Enforcement program speaks openly about how it softens the real horrors of work. to young people who admire young people. him. He goes on to say he has had PTSD since his time as an officer, even mentioning that it led to his divorce and he’s getting emotional. He arguably sweetens the real world for kids who are about to be thrown in, but you can feel his conflict about it. In the next scene, a young man talks to his teacher about withdrawing from the program to mend a breakup with his father, who now lives in Juarez, and she encourages him to stick with it. His intention to make sure that a young man doesn’t give up on a dream is admirable, but it’s impossible not to think about the previous interview with a traumatized man who lost his family and wonder why a child is encouraged to take this route.
“At the Ready” builds strength and empathy as the profiled students do the same. They are there for the controversy over the children in border cages, which leads some to wonder why they are even peripherally involved in a profession that would allow this, and Beto O’Rourke’s campaign is becoming a big event. in the lives of these children, as was the case with many young people in El Paso. If anything, these three films provide a portrait of passionate, engaged, intelligent, fascinating young people, a generation that understands the complexity of our situation in 2021 in a different way than their parents did. I can’t wait to see what they do next.