For the unsuspecting, “Middle School Confessions” is like a “Scared Straight” wake-up call for those who think they know and understand their kids. And even the most vigilant parents may be stunned by director Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s straightforward, eye-opening documentary about the habits of middle-school kids. By letting 11- to 14-year-olds express themselves, supposedly uncensored and uninhibited, on topics such as sex, depression and alcohol, Goosenberg Kent presents a fly-on-the-wall look at what many young teens are up to behind their parents’ backs.
Samuel L. Jackson serves as host, offering a personal touch to balance what some will feel is an ambush of information. Other than on camera eloquence, Jackson’s credentials for the job seem limited to the fact that he survived his daughter’s teen years.
Of the info presented, the most revealing isn’t that young teens have sex, drink and try drugs; it’s the thought process, or sometimes lack thereof, behind their actions. Most of the young girls interviewed haven’t had intercourse, having concluded that oral sex is a form of abstinence that keeps boyfriends interested.
More than just a source of insider information, the docu should work as a conversation-starter for parents and kids. From the cases presented here, parental or adult intervention appears to be key. For Orlando, who finds the lure of street gangs too seductive, it’s his dedicated mother and guidance counselor who get him back into school. For the self-described redneck Jessie, an alienated youth with violent tendencies, it is an unlikely father figure in his black school counselor.
There is real empathy here for the teens and their parents. Both are trying to express themselves and in most cases are missing the mark. But underlying each teen story are a few common denominators, most notably low self-esteem and a craving for parental attention.
Goosenberg Kent may put off some viewers by starting off too strongly with the rather candid segment on sex. The image of these cherub-faced girls speaking so frankly is something some viewers have to work up to. Even so, the segment feels incomplete considering Goosenberg Kent neglects to offer the male counterpoint — a glaring oversight for such an important topic.
Similarly, in the piece about homosexuality, much time is spent interviewing two understanding and supportive parents of gay teens. But since Goosenberg Kent is trying to stress the high level of intolerance these kids face, it would have been beneficial to see the parents who don’t cope as well. Presumably, these people aren’t as eager to talk on camera.
Tech credits are respectable, especially lensing by Tom Hurwitz, who breaks into the kids’ inner circle, giving the docu a real intimate feel. Musical selection is ironically appropriate, with numbers like Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” and “I Live to Party” by Salt ‘N Pepa serving as a glaring reminder of the mixed messages these kids are receiving from all fronts.