On scripted TV, most high school students are experts in survival. The traumas pile on: accidents, fires, alcoholic binges, returned absentee parents with questionable motives. The teens suffer but quickly recover, unscathed and largely unchanged.
The difference between real life and fiction, it turns out, is that when real life intrudes on your high school career, it causes you to mature. That's the lesson - sometimes heartening, sometimes heartbreaking - in "High School Confidential," an ambitious eight-part documentary series that begins airing tonight on WE. Filmed in the spirit of the classic British series "Seven Up!," it follows 12 teenage girls at a single Kansas high school, tracking each of them from freshman through senior year.
The girls of Northwest High are an affluent bunch, though not absurdly rich in a "Gossip Girl" way. They live in a comfortable suburb and deal with the staples of American teenage life: cheerleading squads and soccer teams, homecoming courts and detention halls, temptations in the form of alcohol and sex. They declare firm ideas about school, family, and relationships. They change their minds a lot. And they make their fair share of mistakes.
Each episode focuses on a girl or two, tracking them through high school as if through time-lapse photography. It's a great filmmaking choice, since it allows us to see the girls age before our eyes, both physically and emotionally. There's a vast difference between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old, and in this series, it's palpable: These girls start out as kids and wind up looking and acting like young women.
That's partly because they have to deal with no shortage of traumas, themselves: "High School Confidential" shows us that high school can be tough enough without any writerly intervention. In tonight's premiere, a charmed, popular girl is diagnosed with a brain tumor and handles herself with surprising strength. In the second episode, a teen pregnancy story plays out much like the plot of "Juno" - except that it's more realistic, if no less compelling.
What helps is that the girls are both as articulate and inarticulate as high schoolers can be - they have a lot to say, but we see them sometimes struggle to express it. While they do a lot of talking about their lives and inner feelings, it's the showing that's most instructive. Over four years, filmmaker Sharon Liese gained tremendous access, even to the girls' less-than-exemplary behavior. We see party footage, much of it filmed with cameras askew, that comes across as honest, but not fear-mongering. This series isn't a parental call-to-arms as much as a nonjudgmental, verité look at what really happens in high school, and how kids learn from their mistakes.
That's the heartening thing: They do learn, and we watch along with their parents as they falter and sometimes triumph. As much as this is a story of the pressures facing teenage girls, it's also a striking, honest look at the parent-child relationship, with its ebbs and flows of communication and trust. As nice as it is to see girls grow, it's also fascinating to see their parents discovering them as people. Real-life high school, it turns out, demands changes all around.