Review: Senior Year

Senior Year

From the Hollywood Reporter, 1/10/02
by Ray Richmond

The multipronged phenomenon that is reality TV hath wrought this unique grass-roots soap opera set inside Fairfax High School right here in Los Angeles, a no-frills videography that vividly captures the hormonally marinated angst of a group of seniors during the 1999-2000 school year. Sometimes invasive but always honest and genuine, "Senior Year" carries an urgency that's infectious.

Devoid of narration or very much in the way of a cohesive format, the public TV series -- broken up into 13 half-hour segs -- recounts the journey of 15 Fairfax students over the year. It's a term fraught with tumult and emotional peril, giving rise to a coming-of-age saga that piles on the bathos (sometimes gratuitously). But the stylistic shortcomings of "Senior" are easily forgivable given its intimate ambition, one that candidly relates the adolescent experience in all its raw and messy splendor.

Created, produced and directed by David Zeiger through his Displaced Films and presented in association with KCET, the series is a collection of ongoing profiles that catch up with various students during critical points of the school year. Zeiger evidently chose Fairfax for its cultural diversity and its reputation as a performance-arts magnet, which surely helped in finding kids who didn't mind piling on the drama.

Zeiger enlisted six young filmmakers from UCLA and USC to follow and record two to three students apiece through the school year.

The bonds each film student forged with his/her subjects helped foster trust and, consequently, a greater sense of openness. That aspect of the storytelling was likewise aided by the fact that each student was enlisted to tell his/her own tales via video diaries, created on camcorders supplied them.

The first four "Senior" installments provided for review focus heavily on Jean and Maria, a mixed-race Latino/white couple who speak frankly about their hopes, dreams, fears and sexuality (he says she wants it more than he does; she's not so sure). Their world is turned upside down when Jean's father, recently estranged from his mother, attempts suicide. It will have challenging consequences for their relationship.

Also given major minutes are Jet, whose emerging homosexuality and sense of irresponsibility leave his Filipino-American parents utterly perplexed; Denard, a black varsity football player toiling for a perpetually losing team; and Kendra, a girl with severe physical disabilities and a speech impediment who worries constantly that she will be viewed as mentally challenged.

The quick-cut edits among these personalities can be jarring, and the lack of narration or captions fuses time frames into a single directionless jumble. But even so, "Senior" captures the gnawing complexity of the teenage mindset with uncommon clarity. This series is, indeed, analogous to the adolescent personality itself: anxious, enigmatic, convoluted, freewheeling.