17 And Life Doesn’t Wait interweaves the lives of three tenacious 17 year-old girls in their final year of high school, as they experience, for better or for worse, the impact of the outside world. Through their eyes, the stories speak to contemporary issues, mores and values, by real, multi-dimensional individuals who bring personal histories, excitement and struggles to the screen.
I became interested in examining the attitudes of teen girls in after the U.S. election of 2016, when Trump defeated Clinton and the dream of breaking the glass ceiling was shattered. With the election loss, and the new U.S. President flaunting his misogyny, a clear signal was given that gender inequality and sexism had not abated.
This situation only reinforced what I discovered while making my last film, My Millennial Life, about young working adults finding a place in the 21st Century, that, while 52% of low-wage hourly employees are millennials, 70% of all these hourly employees are women.
I began to wonder what it was like for teen girls who, on the precipice of adulthood, had grown up with conflicting expectations – under pressure to achieve and do what the boys do, while still living in a gender-divided culture. How are our next generation of adult women being affected by the political, economic and societal events of our time? Can they move beyond sexual politics?
I discovered that over 55% of today’s teen girls believe they get mixed messages from society: be smart, but not too smart; play sports, but not those sports; follow your dreams, but not in that field. Yet, in spite of contrary signals, many girls are super-achievers or, perfectionists, trying to be everything to everyone. And that’s taking a toll. 50% of girls also report anxiety and depression before graduating from high school.
This cohort is the first to be literally born in the digital age; to have grown up in in an economically unstable world; to find themselves in a culture where mass school violence is becoming more frequent; and, at a time, where the concept of gender and sexuality is going through a radical change.
While filming 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait, the #MeToo movement exploded, the Parkland shooting in Florida happened, university acceptances, scholarships and graduation created stress and anxiety at a fever pitch, and while the perennial senior prom remained a major focus, events around sexual identity, assault, and suicide, formed the quotidian backdrop to the girls’ Instagramable lives. Some events impacted the girls’ directly, while others were just part of the background noise they lived with.
As in my previous documentaries, 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait, captures moving portraits of its subjects, as they respond to their situations, families, and others around them. For the three very different and diverse girls in the final high school year, their eyes are opened to the larger world, and because, as one of them points out ‘life doesn’t wait’, they recognize they have to have courage and move forward in their independence, understanding and ability to adapt.
The documentary is filmed in an observational style; close-up and intimate with the featured subjects, and at the same time, respectfully observing without judgment or contrivance, and with a sense of humour. The ethical core of the film is in the contextual presentation of the subjects where, through thoughtful and honest observation and in-situ interviews, we watch the subjects handle their family relationships, academic and social challenges, needs, and motivations.
Through the subjects’ own voices, 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait entertains, while examining what teen girls are up against. It reveals their frustrations and successes, and their strengths and abilities to take charge of their lives and identities.
I hope 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait sparks a dialogue around the changing roles and values for women, and how teen girls, as they grow into adults, can best deal with the conflicting expectations and values in society.