What happens when you give a high school student a video camera and tell them to go play, with the single condition that the camera must document his life for a week? You expect the worst. The turmoil, the pain, the "nobody understands me!" Or a load of made-up garbage from someone starving for attention. Maybe something even worse.
But Kirby Dick has found some gems by doing just this. In April of 1999, he gave ten video cameras to ten students for a week. At the end of the week, those cameras were given to the next ten students. The stories accrued until the end of the school term. He sifted 16 diaries from them to create a collage of the perpetually unknown: the mind of adolescence.
It's not all as serious as it sounds. The sole purpose of Leo's footage is to have the camera watch him fake a piss, a rubber toy painted with a face sticking out of his pants. He not only talks for it, but beats the camera with it as well. It's only about a minute long, but it's just the laugh you need after watching Stephanie worry about her overweight father and his heart.
Bracketed by slow motion environmental images, each individual is introduced with their first name. With plenty of footage to choose from, Dick is able to switch emotional tones with finesse, and without a judgmental eye. He has a knack for cutting to the next person before a student gets monotonous. The time allotted varies per teen, and this aids the pace further.
Just as the world takes all types of creatures, Dick works with a microcosm of the 41 different ethnic groups at Hollywood-area John Marshall High School. Luckily, this doesn't come across as trying to be politically correct, but an attempt at trying to paint a full picture of teenagers from one environment. Just because all these kids go to school near Hollywood doesn't mean they're rich and have fake body parts.
The stories range as much as is possible, from an Asian runaway bulimic that aspires to become a stripper to a normal white guy who just wants to find a nice girl to the first American generation born of an Armenian family who can't uphold tradition because of societal gaps to the lesbian who shocked her mother after her first date with a girl. But oddly, though the individuals chosen are so different, their tales don't always feel original. This doesn't mean their emotions aren't valid; it's just that the pressures of growing up lose flavor in repetition.
On the whole, Chain Camera surprises in how it manages to mix entertainment and personal journeys. The result is a talking head video, but due to ever-changing narrative styles and subjects, it's never boring. Take that, Britney.
Back on the chain gang.