Most of us wouldn't relive our teen years for a million bucks. But would you be willing to watch someone else try to navigate the ups and downs of adolescence? Two documentaries now available on dvd provide two very different inside looks at the lives of American teenagers.
American Teen (see trailer above) offers a voyeuristic tour of the senior year of a group of teens from a conservative and highly religious small town in Indiana. We are introduced to five stereotypes: the nerd, the princess, the jock, the heart throb, and the rebel. By the end of the film, some of the teens are still stereotypes (mostly because we learn so little about them) and some become fully human beings, struggling with school, family, sexuality, college, expectations of others, self-esteem, and dreams of the future.
The film has been criticized by many as lacking in diversity (all the youth are white, most middle-class). Good point. It would be great to see a sequel to the film that follows other youth in an ethnically diverse inner-city school. Some have also suggested that the film lacks authenticity as the teens seem to be affected by the presence of the camera crew. Actually, I would argue that this is more true of the parents and teachers presented in the film -- all seem to be on their best behavior (except for the mom who actually tells her daugher "You are not special."). But the camera is always the "unseen" cast member in documentaries of this sort and if the cast is playing to the camera, that alone says something about the nature of American teens. As a particular slice of American adolescence, this film is worth checking out.
The camera is definitely another member of the cast in the documentary Camp Out as we follow another group of teen stereotypes: the skeptic, the loner, the class clown, the heart throb. And this film's "cast" is almost as homegenous as the cast of "American Teen" but for a whole other reason, because this documentary follows ten teens as they attend the first week-long summer church camp for gay adolescents. Organized by several Lutheran churches and a program called The Naming Project, the camp offers these teens a chance to do what we all love to do at camp (arts and crafts, talent show, sports, worship, etc). But they also spend time wrestling with what it means to be both a spiritual person and gay. Some of the teens are very devout. Some are nominally Christian, trying to decide what path their lives will take. Some have been welcomed by the church. Most, however, have stories to tell of being rejected by the Church they had grown to love. In the end, what the documentary wants us to realize is that these are not just GAY teens, but people, struggling with adolescence and trying to figure out where God fits into their lives.
Whatever side of the sexual orientation issue you may came down on, this film is a must-see for those who want to move beyond dealing with gays in the church as an "issue" and start dealing with it from a more human perspective.