UNREAL High School Confidential takes teen problems seriously — too bad it’s not better.
I loathed the four years I spent participating in suburban high-school dramas. Years later, like many of my kind, I’ve become both deeply attached to and emotionally consumed with watching televised portrayals of them. I think of it as a strange and masochistic hobby. For example, I like to torture myself with what never happened to me. I have seen the “Self-Esteem” (a/k/a “The Boiler Room”) episode of My So-Called Life more times than I can count. I also have a lasting attachment to stories that allow me a nostalgic identification with a set of characters — Freaks & Geeks and Degrassi have been delicious comfort, and I’m still obsessed with R.J. Cutler’s award-winning PBS documentary series American High.
But these programs are long gone. In the current œuvre of celluloid adolescent misadventures, it’s difficult to find a show that stands apart. High School Confidential (WE, Mondays at 10 pm), a multi-part documentary by first-time filmmaker Sharon Liese, has attempted to do so, as others have, by choosing a specific niche. In this case, it’s girls, and only girls. High School chronicles 12 young women navigating grades 9-12 in Overland Park, Kansas. It’s a worthy goal on Liese’s part, this desire to depict an actual, smallish-town high-school experience for girls about to go through it, girls in the thick of it, grown women still reflecting on what the hell happened, and parents about to embark upon it with their daughters. Each episode focuses on the story of one or two girls as it unfolded over the course of the four-year filming. If there weren’t so many issues with the execution — it really isn’t the girls’ fault! — High School could have been great.
Teenage girls derive a marked satisfaction from the gory, escapist thorns of faux glamor. (See the ratings for The O.C., Gossip Girl, The Hills.) This doesn’t mean they don’t simultaneously seek out the stripped, identifiable realism that American High and now High School embody. Given Liese’s intention to record the specific-yet-universal coming-of-age struggle, she would have been wise to pinpoint it as it happens. The girls are given cameras, but two episodes in, the scenes they shot have barely made it through or, worse, serve as visual filler. It’s heartbreaking to think of what was edited out. Instead, we get stagy interviews taped in what looks like a private confessional room. Except that it’s packed with people — parents, or the awkward profile of another subject peeking into the frame, waiting for her chance to talk. Just about everything we learn about the girls’ lives comes from those talking-head interviews.
Last week’s High School followed Courtney, a religious, anxiety-ridden soccer star who is battling the pressures of academics, school sports, and her family. When her little sister becomes pregnant at 15 and carries her baby to term, Courtney’s yarn shifts, and her role as “the responsible one” evolves. “Being your own person is the most important thing you can do in high school,” she says. Although it’s thrilling to hear that she’s come closer to finding herself by the time she graduates, it’s also sad, and disappointing, to have the majority of her relatable failures and triumphs analyzed and presented in retrospect. The all-hope-is-not-lost message is necessary, and the girls’ reflections are refreshing. But High School Confidential glosses over the “Before” picture — and the pain — just to get to the relieved, smiling “After.” And the one-four-year-story-per-episode structure doesn’t help. It would mean so much more if the show itself hadn’t been in such a rush to get to the payoff, to leave all those decisive moments behind.