When you put a vlog and a documentary together, you get a vlogumentary. Australian television network ABC’s My Year 12 Life, which started on Monday, is a candid, even touching insight into the secret, stressful lives of teenagers.
At the start of last year, filmmaker Laura Waters gave cameras to a group of 18-year-olds to document their final year of high school – a time when, they’re all at pains to stress, everything gets real.
Year 12 is when Australian high-school students sit their Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams, which will give them their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (Atar), which is a similar exam to the HKDSE. Your Atar, relative to all other students, influences which courses you can apply for, and at which universities, which shapes “the rest of your life”.
Despite their varying attitudes towards the importance of education, the programme’s 14 subjects are under plenty of pressure, and the first episode shows how it might impact on their relationships, their self-esteem, their habits and their futures.
The story – in as much as there is one beyond showing teenagers on the verge of nervous breakdowns – unfolds in camera confessionals. With no film crew or producers there to prompt them, the frankness and emotional honesty of these self-directed interviews is striking.
This no-holds-barred access to teenagers’ inner lives in Australia will appeal to Hong Kong students, who will see parts of themselves in the 14 subjects – they’re a diverse bunch.
There’s Tom, “the free-range kid” currently in Kununurra, Western Australia, who is putting himself through school. There’s Angela in western Sydney, who is “as you can see ... 100 per cent Asian”, and attempting to shed her Lunar New Year weight; and Kayla, the private school girl in inner-city Melbourne for whom reputation is everything. Alfie, in south-west Sydney, wants to be a powerful figure like his mum.
There’s the other Tom, from Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, for whom sport is everything – and who feels daunted by his older brother’s Atar of 98: “I don’t really want to be the family failure”.
Then there’s Alex, studying towards a certificate of applied learning, or vocational training, in Melbourne, who’s facing stigma for taking “the dumb path”: “I give them the old ‘by the time you finish university I’m going to have a full-time job ... and I’ll probably be earning double what you’re making anyway’.”
The documentary is ambitious in attempting to follow 14 individuals, and it’s possible interest will wear thin over 24 episodes – but My Year 12 Life’s real strength is the talent: the self-confident teenagers chosen from hundreds of auditions. A handful of the 14 could skip their exams and be handed a presenting job right away.
Shianna, in particular, shines out. She’s from the state of New South Wales (NSW): an Anna Paquin lookalike who is passionate about wearing, buying, collecting and even selling clothes.
Rural life is not for her, she says, filming the chicken coop through her bedroom window. “Oh my gosh, get rid of that,” she mutters. “I hate the chook pen.”
The appeal of the series is its voyeurism (the secret-like watching of another person), down to the occasional use of first-person style perspective (unseen camera holder turns off the iPhone alarm; pours milk onto cereal). The drama, too, is ordinary, but fascinating all the same.
“We have two assignments due on the same day – how is that legal?” fumes Chelsea, from NSW’s central coast.
But of course, that’s what stress is: domestic and boring to hear about for anyone who’s not experiencing it. Adults might consider them easy to deal with too, and it would be easy to dismiss these teenagers’ concerns by saying that they’re not “real problems”, but it would also be wrong. Nothing could be more real to them than the pressure they feel put under.
To the documentary makers’ credit, the editing of at least the first episode creates a sympathetic gaze – and teen watchers stand to benefit from the knowledge that they’re not alone. But with the series opening with a quote from a university professor about the use of education to develop potential, and the series described as “their final school year – told by them”, there’s no question who the imagined viewer is. Parents, take notes!
The series is marketed as an opportunity for parents to talk with their children about their own pressures at school. But that might be a bit too much like sitting down with their diary to read it together to be comfortable viewing.