I watched an amazing documentary yesterday: "American Teen" directed by Nanette Burstein.(available through netflix and at most public libraries) This is not to be confused with The Secret Life of a teenager soap that is on TV. This doc follows 4 high school seniors for their entire senior year. You literally feel like a fly on the wall in the lives of these kids. For all those parents who regularly tell me that their kids never talk to them about anything, this film is for you. There are so many moments in this film that I know your teen will relate to, and if you can refrain from jumping on the interrogation train, and instead respond to the lives of these kids emotionally and hope that your teen follows suit, you could be in for a richness of conversation and insight into your own teen. The best scenario for watching this film would be to see it with your teen. It is a rare opportunity to see real kids, in real situations not concocted by a reality TV show looking for high ratings. I know for some of you, just getting your teen to sit and watch a movie with you is in it of itself a challenge of olympic proportions. So lets start with some strategy for co-watching. A direct approach, "I heard about this great movie about teenagers, and I would like to watch it with you"probably won't work. Your teen will immediately sense that there is a bigger agenda here than just watching a movie together, like some sort of life lesson lecture instead, and will run in the opposite direction. You might say, 'Have you heard about this movie American Teen? So and so watched it last week, and said it's this amazing documentary about 4 kids during their senior year in high school. Kind of a no-holes- barred- show everything kind of movie. Will you watch with me. Dying to see if they really got it right? Let's get some take-out and watch it." If you can't convince your kid to watch it with you, then just watch it alone on a night they are home in a public viewing area, make the volume loud, and maybe they will just peek in and get intrigued. It is worth watching either way.
Here is why. The film follows 4 students. Each is representative of a particular stereotype, the jock, the popular mean girl, the band geek, and the square peg in the round hole disenfranchised kid. The artfulness of this movie is that it takes you past the stereotype into the inner lives of these kids, and what really drives them. And here is where you and your teen can find connection. There is the "Jock" Colin. On the outside he is the outgoing, talented athlete, who everybody loves. Seemingly carefree and happy. On the flip side what we find out is that he is literally following in his Dad's footsteps whose legacy is everywhere having gone to the same high school, was the star of his basketball team and got a sports scholarship to college, just as he expects his son to do. The pressure you get this dad is putting on Colin to "be him" is painful to watch. A great opening for a discussion with your teen: "Do you ever feel like we put this kind of pressure on you? Do you feel we have expectations of you, that are unfair? I really want to know so that I can change that."
Then we have Jake, the band geek. He is the socially awkward kid that literally makes you cover your eyes as he makes attempts to find a girlfriend. He loses himself in his video games, the one place he feels competent, victorious, and that allows him to fantasize a world where he literally "gets the girl". A great opening for discussion with your teen:" Now I get why video games can become so addictive, especially if your good at them. Thank god this kid has something in his life that makes him feel good." Or Maybe, "god I remember myself in high school, I really liked this guy/girl and I wanted to make an impression and did some really ridiculous thing but instead I came off like an idiot." Your teen might like to hear a story about you when you weren't at your best, giving him/her freedom to share that side of themselves.
Megan is the popular-mean girl. Some amazing incidents of cyber bullying, intense anger and rage from this girl. We learn about the pressure she is feeling from her family of Notre Dame alums to become the next generation to go to Notre Dame, and if that isn't enough we find out that an older sister committed suicide in their basement and Megan was the one that found her. We realize that the anger and meanness is a cover for the rage she feels for herself. What you see isn't what you always get. So much richness for discussion here. The cyberbullying incident, the worry about disappointing family, the image of the tough girl as protection for what's going on inside. So much to discuss.
And then finally we have Hannah, my favorite. She is the artist/musician/filmmaker that is so done with high school and can't wait to leave and pursue her passions in a place that supports her creativity. She is a survivor, dealing with a manic-depressive mom too unhealthy to care for her, an absent father who works in another city leaving her to live with an elderly grandmother. Her friends are her family, and her boyfriend a source of the love and support she craves until he abandons her leaving her bereft and unable to function. Will she sabotage herself by missing too much school? So many openings here for discussions about family, loss, depression and anxiety, friendship, love and on and on.
So there you have it, I hope I have peeked your curiosity, and you will run out and rent this film. Remember that the times that your kids will want to open up to you are when they feel there is meaning for them in the conversation. A reciprocal conversation, when you share yourself as much as you want them to share themselves is the time when real communication commences.