Senior Year

               I never met a typical teenager. I know the image:  pimpled, angst-addled repository of every degrading stereotype adults can concoct. Decades of scientific research and a wealth of modern statistics thoroughly debunks these myths, but they persist. I’ve encountered more sullen, impulsive, rebellious, obnoxious, immortality-deluded, high-risk adults (well, me, for example) than teens. Today’s unsettling reality no interest group admits is that more teens suffer immature grownups than the other way around.

               You can burn most videos, books, and curriculums issued by this interest group or that about today’s supposed teenage “crises,” no big loss. Name one that showed real teenage life:  most drink a bit and aren’t alcoholics, most try drugs and don’t die screaming, most contemplate suicide or homicide at a weak moment (let those who never have cast the first referral slip), most have sex about as responsibly as adults do (take that as you will). Teenagers and the grant-grubbing institutions champing to fix them suffer one commonality: both win cheap popularity to the extent they suck up to established prejudices.

               Just at the point of maximum cynicism, along comes a magnificent work like Senior Year to rewrite the rules. The beauty of Displaced Films director Dave Zeiger’s series--unlike the predictable fund-me programs, agenda-warped institutions, and panic-driven media--is its unpredictability. It has no message to peddle.

               The film’s 13-part profile of 13 Fairfax High School, Los Angeles, seniors illustrates the startling fact that racial and cultural diversity is superficial compared to youths’ incredible individual differences. None of the students fits any known stereotype, which is what makes this film so utterly believable to me after years of working with “at risk” and “normal” kids, whatever those terms mean.

               Senior Year profiles a Filipino boy, well-liked by peers even though “I’m the biggest queer,” pursuing cheerleader and ROTC positions. A Korean girl’s award-winning speech agonizes over whether violent abuses by her traditional mother are worse than her publicizing of such family-shaming issues--one her “shamed” mother praises her daughter for delivering! A star athlete’s losing team finally wins, tough coach openly weeps. A Latino-Italiana Catholic couple who vow to stop having sex to sanctify their relationship, whose volatile exchanges backdrop crises with distant and suicidal parents. An alienated black girl, speech slurred to monotone after she was hit by a car, cheered by students for running for prom queen with the announcement: “I know I’m not popular...” A burnout on Prozac, devoutly Christian in her own hard-core way. A Russian Jew, studiously alienated from peers yet enmeshed in emotion male-female friendships. Too many missing fathers and pained kids, a grim multicultural reality.

               Senior Year’s teens constantly surprise, refreshing in their eagerness to put themselves out there in dramatic success and abysmal failure. No matter how emotional, none are fragile (where that absurd stereotype of adolescents came from I can’t imagine). In one scene, the viewer cheers the parent or counselor for coping with an impossible kid; in the next, we admire the teen negotiating hopelessly messed-up parents and clueless advisors. Senior Year’s tumultuous portrait of youths and the adults framing their world is not an artifice. This is what “kids today” grow up with. It fits no label.

               Because it neither lectures nor sells, Senior Year is a devastating critique of America’s safely rigid no-no-no prescriptions founded in the myth of one-size-fits-all adolescence defined by “high risk” behavior. Senior Year’s youths reflect and permute the swirl of behaviors of adults around them and a community (central Los Angeles, California, USA) in wrenching transition. Most teens are doing a bit better than their parents, exactly what their parents would want, exactly what the rest of grownup America angrily denies in our selfish, self-absorbed abandonment of the next generation. It’s not their future we should worry about, but our present.


Mike Males is a Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and University of California, Santa Cruz, sociologist. His writings, research papers, statistics, and sources are at