This documentary by Kirby Dick made quite a splash at Sundance last spring–the reviews could modestly be described as rapturous–and it’s certainly based on a clever device. Ten students at John Marshall High in L.A. were given video cameras to record their lives and their views for a week, after which they passed them along to ten other students for the same purpose, and so on through the academic year. At the end of the labyrinthine process, Dick collected the footage, eventually selected sixteen of the kids to profile through what they’d shot, and then added a few culminating minutes revisiting some of the subjects at prom and graduation. “Chain Camera,” as the result is rather cutely called, is being given limited theatrical exposure before its appearance on the Cinemax, where it will appear on the cable channel’s “Reel Life” series.
One has to respect the long hours that must have gone into editing “Camera,” and there are flashes of insight and (often raunchy) humor to be found in it; compared with the meretricious teen movies that Hollywood churns out with depressing regularity (see “American Pie 2” for a recent example), it’s a breath of fresh air, even if some of the subjects may strike you as a bit scary and one senses that the makers were determined to offer as broad a spectrum as possible (thus we get a blind boy, a extrovert lesbian and a rather shy gay guy as well as a class brain, an Armenian-American, an Ethiopian immigrant, a girl with Tourette’s syndrome, an anorexic, a chubby fellow who’s desperate to get a girl, and so forth–the picture sometimes seems like an oversized gallery of grubbier John Hughes characters). Especially in the frequent sequences in which the kids talk directly to the camera about their lives, their self-absorption seems overwhelming. And despite its campus setting, this “Camera” catches virtually nothing of school life: all the footage deals with social matters, with a particular emphasis (at least verbally) on sex and drugs. Given this unhappy circumstance, it comes as rather a shock–and a somewhat dispiriting revelation–when we’re informed that 85% of the Marshall graduates will go on to college (though, to be sure, it’s not specified that’s the percentage of the sixteen subjects who actually will).
What ultimately disappoints most about “Chain Camera,” however, is the fact that it’s terribly fragmentary, never developing a narrative arc for any of the characters we meet. Although a few of the subjects are dispatched in mere seconds (one guy is represented only by a riff he does for us about his supposed talking penis), even those most thoroughly covered get only five or six minutes of screen time–barely enough to give us a glimpse of what kind of people they are. Nor do we get to see any of the sixteen actually interacting; they all chum around with friends, but those “supporting” figures are naturally even more nebulous than they are. And of course it’s impossible for us to get to know these kids over the long haul of the year, as we did–for instance- -with those who were featured in the Fox (later PBS) series “American High,” whose subjects frankly seemed a lot less self-conscious than the ones we meet here. Of course those suburban Chicagoans had the luxury of spending much more time before the cameras than these inner-city Californians do, and we were able to watch them change over the months and deal with immediate problems in a way that’s impossible in the present case. (An isolated exception, in which a boy named Winfred discusses his perturbation at being held back from playing football because he failed a math class, comes across as more pretentiously absurd than revealing.)
What the viewer is left with is a series of brief snapshots of frustratingly varied quality–a tapestry offering sporadic moments of amusement or insight, but overall nothing beyond the most generalized mixture of concern and hopefulness about the younger generation. Though you’re likely to leave it glad to have visited some high schoolers far removed from the phony sort usually encountered on the big screen, you’ll probably be disheartened by the fact that it doesn’t get much beneath the surface.