Activism, college admissions, and the high school to law enforcement pipeline all take center stage in terrific new nonfiction films from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
What’s it like to be a teenager in 2021?
Teens have always been great movie subjects, perhaps especially for documentaries. Watching a nonfiction movie set in a high school, adults can sigh with both nostalgia and relief. High schools are microcosms of society as well as a peek into the future, and the arc of a school year makes for a natural story progression.
For decades, documentarians have often trained their cameras on teenagers. But being a teenager in 2021 is not like being a teenager in 1981, or, for that matter, 2011. Teenagers now write, direct, distribute, and star in their own mini-documentaries virtually every day, thanks to smartphones and social media. And making a nonfiction film in which your subjects are used to not just being on camera, but directing and editing and constructing their own image for it, is a special challenge.
Steve James, who has made several documentaries centered on teenagers over the decades, told me after the release of his 2018 high school docuseries America to Me that today’s high schoolers are more aware that “things can be permanent. A film like this isn’t just going to come and go — it’s going to live forever.” The internet, to put it one way, is written in ink. And when your life has been shaped by social media, you’re always thinking about it.
This is part of what sets today’s documentaries about teens apart from movies made only a handful of years ago. Even my fellow millennials and I feel a jolt watching Gen Z navigate high school with a constant feedback machine in their pockets or, more often, in their palms.
It’s not just the social aspect of social media that makes being a teenager feel so fraught in 2021, especially for those who have spent most of their high school years in a world where everything from border separation to rising white supremacy to police shootings to Trumpian bloviation are delivered in a nonstop stream straight to some app.
And that has never been more clear than at the recent Sundance Film Festival, where several debuts revolved around the lives of teens as they are right now. The picture they collectively paint is one of a generation navigating a complex, fast-moving, and even dangerous world with thoughtfulness and grace. But they also show the challenging future these young people face.
This theme felt particularly acute thanks to the timing of the festival, which came at the end of a year that wreaked havoc on the lives of many teenagers. Many of the films didn’t specifically focus on the experience of pandemic-era life (often because they were shot prior to 2020). And yet the empathy feels apropos nonetheless. Schools closing, diminished social experiences, an increase in activism, and a pivot toward a life fully lived online have made the past year like no other. But being a teenager has always been difficult, no matter how you slice it.
A number of excellent fiction films, like CODA (which Apple TV+ purchased for a record $25 million), We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and Marvelous and the Black Hole, focused on navigating family friction, life on the internet, and adolescent angst with humor and grace.
But four documentaries I saw particularly stuck out. Taken together, they offer a rich and nuanced look at the anxieties, joys, and challenges that face teens today. (These films are not yet distributed in the US.)
At the Ready
At Horizon High School in the border town of El Paso, Texas, students have the option — just as they do in 900 other Texas high schools — to opt into a “law enforcement” vocational track. Former law enforcement officers teach courses in criminal justice. And in the school’s Law Enforcement Club, students simulate high-stress situations, like raiding the home of a suspected drug trafficker, or locking down a classroom with an active shooter.
At the Ready follows a group of students in Horizon’s law enforcement track through a year in their lives, gently unearthing the roots of their enthusiasm for a future as a DEA agent or a border patrol officer. Many of the students are Latino, often with parents who came to the US looking for more opportunities for their children — and director Maisie Crow shows why the dreams those young people now hold, which could seem counterintuitive to an outsider, flow from a natural place.
But At the Ready doesn’t stop there. The film covers the 2018–’19 school year, which means the Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke becomes important to Horizon’s student body, many of whom are attracted to O’Rourke’s stand against border separation. Students watch videos on their phones of ICE raids and children weeping as they are separated from their parents; they listen to speeches and go to rallies. One student, devoted to becoming a border patrol officer, becomes more uncertain of that plan when O’Rourke loses. Another is both the leader of the Law Enforcement Club and gay, but afraid to come out to family members and teachers, and O’Rourke’s loss is something like the last straw.
At the Ready wisely probes the complex intersection of race, politics, law enforcement, and adolescence. It shows how the school-to-cop pipeline in America is constructed early in these teenagers’ lives, and the lives of thousands of others. But it’s also a hopeful film, showing how today’s high schoolers are engaged with and listening to rhetoric on a national scale — and how they retain the ability, unlike so many adults, to think for themselves.
Cusp is a little staggering and incredibly beautiful. It centers on three teen girls, also in Texas, this time in a town largely occupied by military families. Autumn is being raised by her attentive single father after her mother left; she declares to us at the beginning that she “hates teenagers,” and she’s very careful about drinking at parties because she’s worried about what might happen to her. Aaloni’s dad was gone with the military for much of her life, but is now back at home, and seems to be making life difficult for her, her sister, and her mother. And Brittney is a peppy and friendly girl whose relationship with her parents is gradually going south.
The film spans one summer in their lives, but it’s not a joyride through teenage life. Directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill only gradually reveal their subject: the pervasiveness of sexual assault in not just Autumn, Aaloni, and Brittney’s lives, but in the lives of their entire age cohort. The girls are around 16, but often shown hanging out with men who are 19 and older. They talk obliquely about the older men — often friends of their parents — who molested them when they were children. They discuss rape with painful familiarity.
What’s most harrowing is that these discussions are all very matter-of-fact, the sort of conversations you have in the backyard at a party or in the backseat of a car in between talking about plans for the weekend. The girls talk about why it happens, and why they and their friends don’t speak out or fight back; boys are stronger, they expect sex, and who would believe them anyhow? Their parents let it happen when they were children — why would anyone care now?
It’s to Cusp’s credit that there’s still a sense of magic and possibility throughout the film, as if the girls have some hope for their futures. Bethencourt and Hill’s observational style means these moments are woven into their subjects’ lives; they skillfully avoid painting the girls one-dimensionally as victims by letting them be their full, smart, messy, laughing selves. But Cusp makes it clear that sexual assault is a problem of culture, not individuals — and that the fault lies with generations that don’t take action to change it.
We’re informed at the beginning of Homeroom that the film covers the senior year of Oakland High School’s class of 2020, which means we already know what these kids don’t: The disruption of a lifetime is coming.
But they were an extraordinary bunch even before they were forced to live through a pandemic. Homeroom, the third in Peter Nicks’s trilogy of films about Oakland, focuses largely on a group of students at OHS who are passionately involved in activism; their cause is to eliminate the police officers who patrol the school and represent a $2.5 million line item in the school’s budget. The district has proposed cutting other programs while retaining the police, and the students — many of whom are Black and brown, and two of whom were elected by the student body to sit on the district’s school board — are vigorously opposed to this measure.
Homeroom, like At the Ready, is especially good at evoking the strangeness of adolescence mediated through social media. Students scroll through their various feeds, watching videos of police brutality juxtaposed with kissy-face videos posted by their friends. It’s impossible to simply be “just” a high schooler — the world outside intrudes — but for them, that’s always been true. A major reason they don’t want cops in their school is they’ve seen their friends and their family arrested and sometimes harmed by law enforcement, and so those officers don’t represent safety to the students; they represent a threat.
And then the pandemic hits, and the protests against police brutality start in June, and everything changes. Or maybe, in a sense, nothing does. Homeroom makes the case that Gen Z has always been primed and ready to take their place as activists; it’s the rest of the country that’s finally started to move in their direction. And it’s a compassionate, powerful, and often very funny look at a generation who will never be the same.
Lowell High School, in San Francisco, is the oldest high school west of the Mississippi and one of the most competitive public high schools in the US. Its student body, largely Asian American, is made up of students who would be academic stars at any normal high school. At Lowell, though, having good grades is normal. You need a lot more than a high GPA to set yourself apart — especially if you’re going to get into a good college.
And that’s the focus of Debbie Lum’s Try Harder!, in which Lowell students talk frankly about the extraordinary work they’ve put into getting into their dream schools. As both a college professor and a 2005 graduate of a relatively elite institution where, as a woman, I was in a minority, I thought I knew a lot about college admissions. But Try Harder! taught me all sorts of things that today’s parents and teens already know — including that the college admissions process has become more difficult in the past 15 years, and the most selective schools have grown more selective.
Try Harder! also reveals, with dark humor, the bias against students of Asian descent that persists at many elite American universities. Students repeatedly tell stories that illustrate a pervasive, racist perception that Asian American students are “machines” who simply generate good grades and have no distinctive personalities or interests of their own. There is no simple solution to the issue of racism in college admissions, and the well-documented history of higher education in the US is littered with anti-Semitism, misogyny, and bias against applicants from virtually every racial group. But in Try Harder!, the myth of an American meritocracy is on full display.
That’s not to say that Try Harder! is a hard-hitting expose. It’s a very funny movie about a bunch of students trying to find their way through a system that is designed to keep them out rather than let them in. And it’s a reminder that while Americans often worship a small set of credentials and institutions, there are brilliant, multifaceted people everywhere. Taking apart certain elitist conceptions about who deserves to lead and be heard wouldn’t just be good for aspiring students — it would be good for everyone.