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Mohawk Girls
Still from “Mohawk Girls” (2005)

The best documentaries about growing up as a girl

Dealing with the patriarchy and gossiping about crushes aren’t mutually exclusive

Being a teen sucks. That’s why TV shows about them don’t even cast teens in teen roles. OK, that’s not true, but you get what I mean. Despite the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why trading in sophomore suicide, it has only one actual teenager in its cast of 13. What about real teens and their real struggles? Unless you’re gorgeous, or popular, or have a massive revenge story planned that involves sending your enemies tapes post-mortem, it’s rare to hear a coming-of-age story you can relate to. For girls especially, having to deal with the patriarchy and crushing societal conventions – as well as other girls – can feel like you’re trapped in a pressure cooker. There are a handful of documentaries that tar the image of popular girls having no problems, or high school being conflict free, or identity struggles being non-existent. They do exist, are common, and these films give them weight. By simply shadowing teen girls, it soon becomes clear what issues they face – and how young women summon the strength to face them head on.


Whatever it’s like to grow up in New York as a girl, whether you’re privileged or fighting to get by, can’t find your place or anxiety-ridden about change, All This Panic is achingly relatable. The documentary was made by director Jenny Gage over three years, taking it in turn to peer in on the lives of seven teen girls navigating life in America’s biggest metropolis. This isn’t so much a structured narrative as it is a chronology, a series of beautiful glimpses of growing up in an accelerated, double-tap culture. There aren’t many documentaries which show what it’s like to be a girl now, with the burdensome pressures of Instagram and the seemingly new thing that is teens saying exactly what is on their minds. But All This Panic unravels teenage innocence and confusion like no other movie. Ginger and Lena go through depression, boyfriends and daddy issues, emerging the other side perhaps not necessarily stronger, but more fully-formed about who they are.


All American High Revisited is an outsider’s view of what high school is like in America. Finnish exchange student Rikki Rauhala attends Torrance High in California for one year, and the audience trails along through the packed hallways and debaucherous backyard keg parties she attends in her senior year. Virtually nobody has seen this film because it aired on public access television in America only a handful of times. It was then shelved away in the director’s storage unit. “A few hundred, maybe a couple thousand people have seen this film,” the director Keva Rosenfeld told us. “One day I walked in (my storage facility) looking for some old photography stuff that I’ve done, and I looked at the corner and I started pulling out reviews and things from the film and one of them said, ‘These are the children who will guide America into the 21st century,’ and I said, ‘Wow. Well, I’m in the 21st century now so I wonder if that’s true.’” Rosenfeld went back 30 years later and found out what transpired in the years between its release and the 30th anniversary. It’s an interesting time capsule of one girl’s exchange and high school in the 80s.


Erin “Tiny” Blackwell is a 14-year-old teenage prostitute living on the streets of Seattle. By the time she’s had her second period, she’s dealt with gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis – twice. Turning tricks is how she makes her money, and it’s something her mum feels indifferent about. It’s hands down the best documentary about teen street life ever released. The late photographer Mary Ellen Mark, director Martin Bell’s wife, met these streetwise punks on a photo assignment in Seattle for Life magazine in 1983. She vowed to return and tell their stories. The result earned a nomination for an Academy Award. “I shot about ten minutes of film and one of the girls who I thought was going to be a character said, ‘I don’t wanna be in the film.’ So I opened the magazine of film, gave her the film, and she just went away,” Bell told us about gaining the teens’ trust. The vignettes string together a portrait of these young girls helping each other out, watching each other’s backs and ploughing through life just struggling to survive in their adopted Addams family.


Filmed over two years, Tracey Deer’s personal documentary Mohawk Girls follows Amy, Lauren and Felicia – three Mohawk teens who live on the Kahnawake reserve across the river from Montréal. This film is a powerful discovery of identity, as Canada’s Aboriginal population is still marginalised and, for the most part, confined to tracts of land on which they’re haunted by oppression, its effects still reverberating. It’s the invisible barrier between their reserve and the big city that plagues these three girls: leave and discover what the ‘outside world’ has to offer and risk losing your identity, or stay and always wonder what’s across the river. Racism, identity and culture are the underlying themes of the documentary, and it’s a fascinating story of how three young women contemplate their futures.


Nanette Burstein’s American Teen takes high school archetypes (jock, nerd, prep) and applies them to real-life, Indiana teens who most closely fit the bill. Megan is the queen bee, Hannah is the artist, Mitch is the heartthrob and Jake is the gamer geek desperate for a girlfriend. Burstein follows them over the course of their graduating year at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana. It’s a framework that both helps and hinders the story – you automatically feel for the geek and kind of loathe the preppy girl. Where it wins is in its intimacy. One scene in particular showcases just how genuinely awful some kids can be. A girl sends topless photos to two boys in class. They pass them around to friends via text, and the situation naturally escalates – all captured on film – as the school’s ‘plastics’ (Megan et al.) call up the girl and leave hateful messages on her voicemail, calling her a “slut”. While it’s heartbreaking to watch unfold, it’s real. This happens, and often. This perfect storm is both a warning and a paragon of how teen girls are treated when they make honest mistakes. A kind of acid-tongued vitriol that boys aren’t subjected to. This is how some girls act when pumped through with hormones and peer pressured to create drama. Either fit in or be victimized.