There are multiple documentaries at Sundance this year that focus on the teenagers of America, from Oakland to El Paso. In fact, this dispatch of three loosely connected films doesn’t even include some teen-centered non-fiction flicks that will be covered later like “Cusp.” Why this trend in 2021? Why are the children on our mind as we head into a new decade and leave one of the worst years in world history behind? Maybe it’s a question that answers itself.
The best of the three is a personality-driven piece called “Try Harder!,” which profiles five students of the prestigious Lowell High School in San Francisco, revealing the varied stories to be told from a learning institute that might appear from the outside to be filled with the same personality type. Director Debbie Lum carefully deconstructs the life of over-achievers going through the brutal and rigorous process of college applications, one that can often seem random and unfair. Even the smartest and hardest working kids can’t be guaranteed they’ll get into the colleges they choose. But Lum’s approach is far from depressing (even if aspects of this film play like a horror movie for parents with kids under high school age, like yours truly), choosing instead to really take a character-driven look at these people. Lum allows their personalities to shine through, revealing how much a process that often turns kids into numbers and demographics can miss the true stories underneath.
Take the arc of Shea, a junior who puts up with an addicted father who is gone all night feeding his demons when he’s not getting the pair evicted. Shea puts up with it in large part because he can’t go live with his mother or he wouldn’t be able to attend Lowell. His home life is impacted 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 into his life and decisions about his future. These kids are facing constant stress, and yet Lum is careful to present their playful, joyous sides too. All of them are likable and open with Lum, a testament to her skill as a filmmaker and interviewer.
The truth is that college is everything to kids who go to a school like Lowell … but it’s also not. They need to be teenagers and they need to understand the unknown challenges of the real world like not getting into a school even when all you’ve done all the right things. I would love to revisit these kids Michael Apted-style in four to five years and see what all of this meant for their futures. I expect their stories would be even more diverse, unique, and fascinating as they are now.
Across the bay in Oakland, a different kind of document of teen life unfolds in Peter Nicks’ “Homeroom,” the story of a very unusual year for education around the world. Nicks has made three films now about life in Oakland, including the excellent “The Force” from 2017. Here, he turns his eye to the education system and captures how many of the issues that would come to the surface in 2020 via the pandemic and the protests were there before. Most of all, he’s made a film that’s really encouraging about the youth of this nation, finding a passionate, fascinating group of teenagers at Oakland High School and following them through the entire 2019-2020 school year, one that unfolded like no other.
Nicks takes a verité approach to his subject, documenting students through the ups and downs of their final year in high school at a distance, letting them tell their own stories. The focus of the first half falls on a debate that would echo “Defund the Police” months later as students and community members fight the board about removing police officers from Oakland High School. Like a bit too much of “Homeroom,” I could have watched these board meetings for hours, Wiseman-style. The debate over adults who think that officers keep their kids safe opposite students telling them that uniforms don’t equal safety for a lot of young people is fascinating. And it’s wonderful to hear these young people discuss their concerns so openly, even if a lot of them seem to often fall on deaf ears.
If there’s a flaw in “Homeroom,” it’s that there’s so much story to tell about 2019-'20 in a 90-minute movie. It’s not until over halfway through that Nicks gets to the impact of COVID—I did love hearing a teenager convinced that if you had the flu shot then you were fine in the early days—and then he races through the protests of May 2020 and graduation. There have been so many docuseries lately that could have been better movies. “Homeroom” is the opposite, often zipping through moments and highlights that would have been stronger with more dissection and discussion. Then again, time flies when you’re a teenager.
Finally, there’s the complex “At the Ready,” which shifts the Sundance documentary focus to Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, ten miles from the border. Director Maisie Crow introduces viewers to an incredibly unusual thing in the criminal justice club, wherein teenagers are trained in how to run raids, stop illegal immigrants, and battle active shooters in a way that even ends with a competition with fake guns and obstacles. Most of the participants are Mexican Americans who are interested in a legal border and law enforcement in general, but these choices often lead to problems at home, and inner conflict as teenagers learn more about the real world. At first, “At the Ready” feels a bit repetitive and even thin, but Crow’s deep empathy allows her subjects to open up, and we come to care about someone like Kassy, a kid really coming to terms with so many things about the world while playing fake games of border warfare.
“At the Ready” seems like a reflection of the complexities of the part of the world in which it takes place. It initially seems like a land of contradictions, but Crow is careful in the way she structures her story as so as not to judge the young people at its center. I’m not so sure the same is true of the adults. One of the best pieces of editing by Crow and her team comes late in the film when a teacher of students enrolled in the border patrol and enforcement program speaks openly about how he softens the true horrors of the job to the young people who look up to him. He goes on to say he has PTSD from his time as an officer, even mentioning that it led to his divorce, and he gets emotional. He’s arguably softening the real world for kids who are about to get thrown in it, but one can sense his conflict about that. In the very next scene, a young man is speaking to his teacher about pulling out of the program to mend a rift with his father, who now lives in Juarez, and she encourages him to stick with it. Her intention to make sure a young man doesn’t give up on a dream is admirable, but it’s impossible not to think of the previous interview with a traumatized man who lost his family and wonder why a kid is being encouraged to take that path.
“At the Ready” develops strength and empathy as the students profiled do the same. They’re there for the controversy about kids in cages on the border, leading some to question why they’re even peripherally involved in a profession that would allow that, and the campaign of Beto O’Rourke becomes a prominent event in the life of these kids, as it did for a lot of young people in El Paso. If anything, these three films offer a portrait of passionate, engaged, smart, fascinating young people, a generation that understands the complexity of where we are in 2021 in a different way from their parents. I can’t wait to see what they do next.