By PHIL GALLO
The San Fernando Valley’s last bastion of horse ranches, orange groves and rocky hillsides, the community of Chatsworth has apparently become the ultimate suburban melting pot with its mix of 1960s tract-housing sprawl, light manufacturing and auto shops attracting a widely mixed middle class. The town’s diversity shows its multiethnic face in the student body at Chatsworth High School, the stage for HBO’s documentary miniseries “Freshman Year,” which exquisitely captures the merging and divisiveness of the races against the blank tableau of youth. Shot during the 1999-2000 school year and shown over 14 half-hours, the show succeeds in documenting the untried rituals of high school as incoming ninth-graders are introduced into a world of possibility and have to make choices on whether to navigate the world alone or with the guidance of elders and peers.
Filmmakers Eamon Harrington and John Watkin take a hands-off approach with their subjects and allow the semester to flow organically in the debut episode and four segs randomly chosen for review. The educational years have certainly attracted documakers by the droves recently (“The First Year” and “American High” on PBS, for example) and yet few can compare to “Freshman Year.” It’s fascinating to see what these students do and don’t know, how they straddle the center of a teeter-totter between a mask of adulthood and a carefree state of teenagedom. None of these subjects could be classified as kids.
Doc distinguishes itself through its laissez-faire attitude toward the characters, who arrive ambitious and young, unshaped yet made distinctive through some nice editing by Susan Lofgren and Sharon Rennert. The audience isn’t asked to judge them in the manner of other reality series, the bulk of which thrive on viewers hating one and cheering for another. (Would “Big Brother 2” be compelling without the Bunky-Hardy personalities?) These are youths and as they travel down a dangerous path, it’s hard not to be empathetic — who in their right mind doesn’t want to see a 14-year-old girl stop using drugs and start turning in her homework?
First seg shows the new class embracing their brave new world: Justin is trying to be like older brother Mike, Chatsworth’s star QB; Jamie and Asad go head to head in the battle for class president, and race — she’s Asian, he’s Persian — weaves itself through their political lives in ways most adults don’t see; Josh is the short kid who has to learn to deal with no locker for his bags of books. Series focuses on the everyday, how the little things lead to moments of triumph and disappointment for everyone regardless of athletic or academic achievement. Student who leads a tour of the campus in a later episode is straight out of the Mars Blackmon school of speed-acting — he should get an agent ASAP.
For a school that appears legitimately determined to get students to confront racial issues and stereotypes, it’s fascinating to see what happens when the cameras are running. Nothing is more telling than a principal proudly boasting to a student whose stepfather is in a wheelchair that they’re making the school accessible to the handicapped — for the first time in its nearly 40-year history.