Approaching adulthood 

Zeiger's documentary 'Senior Year' puts the real in reality TV

The mesmerizing PBS series "Senior Year" combines the intoxicating, practically hard-wired thrill of reality TV with the insight of art. Unlucky enough to be included in the same format that bequeathed us "Survivor" and "The Real World," "Senior Year's" brand of humanism reveals such programs as the detergent-and-jeans- selling human depravity freak shows they are.

"Senior Year" is produced and directed by former Atlantan David Zeiger (Displaced in the New South), who moved to Los Angeles where he teaches at the USC Film School and is working on a screenplay. Zeiger enjoyed a notable filmmaking career in Atlanta and was named the city's "Best Filmmaker in Atlanta" in 1997 by Creative Loafing. Zeiger's documentary about his son Danny's Decatur high school band The Band, which aired on PBS's award-winning P.O.V. series in 1998, inspired his interest in the trials and tribulations of the teen years that has continued with "Senior Year."

Working with a team of six young filmmakers on "Senior Year," Zeiger chronicles the lives of 15 students infected with that suddenly familiar-again, maddening itch to make it through the prolonged, grueling purgatory of senior year.

Broken into 13 30-minute episodes, "Senior Year" debuts with a one-hour premiere (Channel 8, GPTV-PBS, Jan. 11, 10 p.m.) that gets its hooks in immediately, leaving viewers like a marlin wiggling on a lure in anticipation of next week's installment. The brilliance of Zeiger's series lies largely in its judicious choice of subjects. Instead of the narcissistic, pampered mall rats and suburban dullards of "The Real World," "Senior Year" features a fantastically diverse group with real, meaty stories to tell.

The cast includes kids like Kendra, a girl left disabled in a car accident, and Maria and Jean, a spunky, opinionated couple -- one of those career couples familiar from high school who operate throughout the film as a joined-at-the-hip unit. There's the sorta flaky, artistic Jen, who offers one of the film's many nuggets of philosophical insight when she says, in describing her own mother's enormous, positive influence, "parents rub off on their kids." Busting the mold of black football players trying to "make it to the pros" is Derard. A sweet, sensitive kid who may be as academically gifted as he is brilliant on the gridiron, Derard is tellingly most often talked about in terms of his sports potential, reflecting a culture that tends to reward athlete prowess, not intelligence, in young black men.

There's not a clunker among them. Their problems range from the minor -- Jen's efforts to find a boyfriend -- to the nightmarish, like Jean's father's attempted suicide. The usual parents-versus-children complaints arise, like the exasperated Filipino parents fretting over their gay son Jet's party boy irresponsibility. But in many cases, a new dynamic emerges. The kids are often the ones forced to hold their parents' hands through their emotional crises or forced to deal with issues related to parental abandonment.

"Senior Year's" premise can initially seem very 21st-century PC with its rainbow coalition of eclectic, multi-hued teens and their Whitman's Sampler of "issues." In some ways the school itself, Fairfax High in Los Angeles, seems more exceptional than typical, too -- a public school with an ethnically diverse but harmonious student body run by maverick educator/philosopher Dean Bogue. But the kids themselves are so eccentric and endearing and the prolonged series format so ripe for fresh discoveries, such touchy-feely trappings and MTV-style editing begin to matter less and less. Though its foot is firmly planted in the ratings-boosting aesthetics of MTV, the spirit of "Senior Year" is more in keeping with Frederick Wiseman's pioneering anthropological documentaries like High School or the Maysles brothers' Salesman.

The reiterated theme, of course, is senior year and the on-the-cusp tension of kids contemplating this entry into a real Real World. The kids themselves are enthralling works-in-progress -- still children enough they have to be reminded in a morning P.A. message to look both ways before they cross the road (tragically, two are hit, and one killed by reckless drivers) and adult enough to grapple with pregnancy, neighborhood violence, suicide, the painful emotional aftermath of abortion and a classmate's death. Self-assured and in control one minute, the next a crumbled heap of doubt and despair, the teenage heart and mind are captured with great empathy and sensitivity.

But "Senior Year" is at its most exciting and poetic when it stretches beyond the parameters of its teen focus. It is in sketching the complexities of Kendra's unique perspective as a handicapped teen whose brain is razor sharp but whose body shows evidence of a car accident that the documentary achieves greatness.

A critical, tough, painfully insightful teen, Kendra bristles at being grouped alongside the retarded kids on the special ed bus, and in a telling moment, she recoils at her treatment by a "helpful" school photographer. The senior yearbook photographer -- an unctuous older hippie type -- continually touches Kendra's hands or shoulder, her disability giving him some sense of license in pawing her and offers of help where none is needed. In this one brief exchange we understand volumes about how the disabled feel condescended to, marginalized and inferior while these perpetrators feel only "sensitive" and "helpful."

In a culture that has learned to see teenagers as the enemy, "Senior Year" reminds us that they are more accurately a window into the culture's best and worst future. Dr. Bogue tells the filmmakers of her young charges, "Their behavior is a language -- it tells what they are unable to tell." In a society more comfortable with lamenting its hormonal disasters, "Senior Year" offers the atypical message that there is hope for the next generation.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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