Image: George Grosz, Explosion, 1917


Commentary on the recently released film directed by Sébastien Lifshitz

Teens is a feature-length documentary produced in 2019 and released in France in September 2020. The two-hour and fifteen-minute film follows the daily lives of two French girls, inseparable friends, and their transformations between the ages of 13 and 18. The director, Sébastien Lifshitz, is the author of 12 other films.

It would not be pointless to compare Teens with the American film B (2014) who accompanied a boy for 12 years at different stages of his life and development. In case of B, this happened in the follow-up of family relationships from childhood to the ritualized university start of the main character, Mason. However, if it is possible to find similarity in the intention of filming the development and transformations between ages, it is necessary to point out that B is a fictional film that simulates the observation of everyday life, while Teens it is a documentary dive into the lives of two teenagers, their families, schools and friendship networks. In any case, it is possible to carry out the comparative exercise of seeking to find “documents” of North American social history in B as well as trying to glimpse what is representation and fictionalization of roles of the characters in the French documentary Teens.

A significant link, however, between Teens e B it is in the common effort to construct the films in longitudinal perspective. In this way, they dialogue both with the synchronic dimension of everyday life in the different stages of life and establish diachrony that allows us to perceive the transformations between the ages of childhood, adolescence and the first steps of being a young adult of the characters in the respective films. The diachrony also allows establishing links between individual changes, notably bodily ones, and the social transformations of each of the societies where the films originated.

For more than two hours, Teens contextualizes the main characters Emma and Anaïs. The speeches of the girls and of individuals from their networks of relationships made up of family members, teachers and school friends are articulated with decisive passages from different stages of schooling and important events in French life in the period. Significant events are compared, such as the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and the Bataclan concert hall and the 2017 presidential elections that gave victory to the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen, an extreme right candidate.

The film is a balanced composition of images and sounds that draws a mosaic of situations that characterize the teenagers' daily lives, whether in the school environment, in family relationships, on the internet or in the world of leisure, friendships and dating.

The scenes recorded in spaces for leisure and free time are a special opportunity for the film to reveal, with close proximity to the characters, situations and conversations about transformations in the body, in love relationships and sharing experiences and desires related to sexual initiation.

French sociologist Anne Barrère (2013) draws attention to what she calls the “sphere of youth autonomy”. Today's teenagers carry out numerous activities outside of school – not just entertainment – ​​which constitute real personal investments mediated by personal taste. This true non-school “curriculum” developed around explicitly educational activities, and others directly related to youth sociability, make up a heterogeneous set of activities that, through peer groups and youth culture, expand their autonomy. In this way, “the tests”, tests or challenges would not be just those of the school, but of this broad field of time-occupying activities.

In this education that takes place in youth free time, especially in the domain of digital spheres, lies one of the great challenges of understanding sociability and the choices that young people practice beyond school, but which inevitably manifest themselves in our school routines (CARRANO, 2017).

We can say that the school needs to recognize that it is not alone in the “educational universe” and that there are no guarantees that it will be the decisive institution in the constitution of the strong traits of youth subjectivity. Regarding what can be called the “crisis of the school's socializing action”, Marília Sposito (2007) warned of the need to adopt a non-school analytical perspective of the sociological study of the school. And it does so considering that we are facing a society that has become more complex, diluted the weight of tradition, radicalized the individuation of the social and that is experiencing what has already been called the “decline of the institution” in modernity (DUBET, 2002).

the montage of the film Teens is, in this sense, emblematic for seeking to maintain balance between scenes and dialogues of different spaces-time (family, school, professional initiation and leisure) that are intertwined in the experiences and subjectivities of teenagers Emma and Anaïs.

Director Sébastien Lifshitz filmed the documentary in Brive-la-Gaillard, a city in the interior of France. In 2010, the city had around 49 inhabitants. The director's territorial choice to record the lives of French teenagers outside the recurrent setting of the Paris suburbs that we are used to seeing in films about French youth is significant.

If analyzing daily life is an act of deciphering (PAIS, 2003), the montage of the film gives us, albeit parsimoniously, throughout its projection, the keys so that we can understand the networks of relationships, the fears, the challenges, their actions, desires and expectations of teenagers Emma and Anaïs.

The commitment to make an observational documentary of a diachronic nature, using a filming device that is very close to the daily lives of teenagers, was motivated by what Sebástian Lifschitz called the “metamorphosis of bodies”, that is, a search to try to understand how the child's consciousness separates from the parents. The option of a 5-year longitudinal documentary is explained, therefore, since it is not possible to perceive changes in six months, points out the director in an interview (LE PARISIAN, 2020).

There is a clear intention to show that there is a plurality of paths in the forms and contents of “being a teenager” and this is expressed in the editing of the documentary that alternates, around thematic nuclei, significant passages in the lives of the two characters that the film accompanies. There is also a bet on presenting diversity in action, which is expressed at various times in the dialogues held by Emma and Anaïs on the most different subjects, whether it be the professional path to take or the options of boys for dating or starting a sexual life.

Emma is an only child, of civil servant parents, taken to school by car by a mother who is always nagging – with delays, delays and her daughter's choices. She participates in a theater group, takes dance classes and a few years later also starts solfeggio classes. We discover her desire to act over time, but singing and dancing complete a wide curriculum and considered necessary – more by her mother than by Emma herself – as additional options for the career possibilities that the teenager may follow.

Anaïs is the eldest daughter of the family who has two brothers, a baby and a teenager. She goes to school alone using public transport. The film shows that her parents are low-income workers, but does not reveal what their occupations are. Her mother suffers from depression and low self-esteem because she is obese. Anaïs performs poorly academically at school and her mother makes demands on her for better performance.

The succession of scenes of one and another teenager demonstrates very tense relationships between mothers and daughters. Discussions, banning dialogue, difficulties in respecting positions, choices and desires. Anaïs' mother demands good performance, but does not accompany her daughter's school activities. Emma's mother, on the contrary, accompanies and demands all of her daughter's school steps: she studies together but without the patience to explain, sits beside her, unwilling to give her space to carry out her activities autonomously. It defines, imposes, delimits choices.

The store scene in which Emma's mother chooses clothes for her is emblematic of the incommunicable relationship between the two. The mother interacts with the salesperson about which blouse or dress would be more interesting as if Emma were not present. She, in turn, rejects, one by one, the “suggestions” of the mother who always has the agreement of the saleswoman who also seems to ignore the preferences of young Emma.

They are equally suffocating relationships with such distinguished mothers. The parents of both teenagers are very sporadic in the documentary. They appear few times, take a little stand, seem to delegate the daily relationship with their daughters to their mothers. Anaïs' father has a greater presence during the period when her mother undergoes gastric bypass surgery, which has complications and leads to an induced coma and prolonged hospital stay.

Despite the tensions, Anaïs presents her parents with a demand for respect and attention in a more clear and direct way than Emma can express. The communication between Emma and her mother is difficult, of the "hit it, it took it" type. Dialogue is interdicted by the mutual difficulty of hearing each other.

Relationships between mothers and daughters are one of mutual disrespect and demands. It is to be expected, however, that parents, as adults, have a greater ability to listen, dialogue and understand their children, immersed in their unique processes of transformation, of apprehending the world from the perspective of adolescents and no longer in the condition of children. The relationship between these two mothers and their two daughters portrayed in the film demonstrates that they are not adults facing “problem teenagers”, as common sense has established. It must be said that, in fact, problematic relationships are established between adolescents and their parents and not that they are problematic adolescents in isolation. In summary, what the film demonstrates is that the two mothers, each in their own way and from their different places of class, have difficulties in overcoming the test of dialogue with their daughters.

The terrorist attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which took place in January 2015, and those which took place in November of the same year at the Bataclan concert hall and at the Stade de France became the subject of debates in class. Both took place in the same year, but in different school years for the adolescents, with the second event occurring when they were already in their first year of high school, in different schools. In the debate about the Charlie Hebdo, Anaïs defends Muslims against generalizations that attribute to everyone, without distinction, characteristics of violence and intolerance.

It is also an opportunity for the film to present the civic dimension of the French reaction to the terrorist attacks. In this regard, the scene in which students and teachers gathered in the courtyard of Emma's school raise posters in which the anarchist symbol is redesigned superimposing the Eiffel Tower on the letter "A" is emblematic. The school is also a place for reflection on the tragic events. “Is it possible to laugh at everything?”, asks a teacher in the classroom, provoking a debate about the limits of freedom of expression when it comes to religious symbols, a central theme in the attack that killed journalists from the satirical Charlie Hebdo.

Coming to the ninth year of “high school” (equivalent to the second segment of Brazilian elementary school) implies making choices about desired and possible paths for continuing studies in “lyceum” (equivalent to high school). Adolescent students are confronted with their grades, school successes and failures, which expand or delimit possibilities of choice towards high school. Emma knows that her grades can take her where she wants to go (general, technical/technological or vocational high school), even if she is always unsure of her capabilities.

Anaïs is introduced to professional or technological paths, where her low grades indicate a restricted possibility. In conversation with someone who seems to be the school's pedagogical coordinator, she asks “what would technology interest me in? For what?" And her interlocutor recalls the teenager's interest in producing manga, a creative activity for which technology would support. But when the scene shows Emma and Anaïs' class filling out a form about their choices for high school, Anaïs raises doubts in the classroom about whether the professional stage in high school would be the way to fulfill her desire to work with the development of early childhood. We then discovered that in the first year of high school Anaïs would start doing internships and the first of them is at the “École Maternelle” – Early Childhood Education. The rejection of school contents that Anaïs revealed with the phrase “What is it for?”, in the final years of elementary school, is re-signified when she starts the internship with young children – already in high school – and is faced with the challenges of the practice that demand knowledge that school training offers.

The end of elementary school implies the distancing of the two inseparable childhood friends, each one going to a different school, living with other people and making new friends. The beginning of the school year for both, in different secondary schooling paths, can be summarized by the speech of their teachers. Anaïs hears that “they must already behave like professionals” because they will start doing internships in the first semester and Emma hears that “they will have a lot to study”.

The presidential elections introduce the dimension of the teenagers' political orientation in the documentary. The cameras show Anaïs with her father and Emma with her father and mother, each in their homes, following the announcement of the election results on TV. Anaïs reveals her contempt for winner Macron: “bourgeois!” she exclaims. Emma's parents root for Macron. Emma too. Even though she shows little interest in the end result, she claims: “Better Macron than Marine Le Pen”, in rare agreement with her parents. And she adds: "Anyway, I don't like him very much", referring to Macron. In summary, the climate in Anaïs' house is one of disappointment, while in Emma's house it is one of relief. This part of the film reveals the well-documented disbelief in politics, politicians and institutions on the part of many young people. Anaïs' adherence to the far-right candidate seems to be due to antagonism to Macron since, being a rich man, he would not express the interests of the poorest.

Anaïs bets on a professional course, gets an internship in the area of ​​care, receives support from public policy to leave her parents' house and live in a residence associated with her new job. She is faced with moments of autonomy and self-assertion that she did not know before. Emma, ​​in turn, anchored by her good school grades, follows the propaedeutic path aiming to enter the university film course with the financial support of her parents. And she resolutely faces the nonconformity of her mother, who criticizes her for having limited options and insisting on choosing a cinema course in Paris. Both Emma and Anaïs, although taking different paths, land in a new reality of experimenting with autonomy and elaborating their own personal paths, far from the watchful and protective gaze of their families.

"We're so young and they throw us out so quickly." With this sentence, Emma reveals the perception that perhaps it is too early to make definitive choices “for the rest of your life”. In turn, Anaïs philosophizes about the uncertainties of the future time: “Anyway, we will see where life will take us”.

The film's final scenes alternate Emma and Anaïs' rail and road journeys to their new and respective cities where they will take on, in a condition of family emancipation and autonomy, challenges of study, work and reconfiguration of friendship networks. The two young women drag suitcases down the sidewalks into the night. In their luggage they carry stories, experiences and knowledge, desires and hopes that they wove during adolescence.

“Adolescents” is also a gateway to the knowledge of the French school system. The French school establishes a bifurcation of paths between propaedeutic teaching that points to entry into higher education and technical-professional training that aims at professional insertion at the end of basic education. The film reveals schools that offer a range of training options for all students in the propaedeutic or technical-professional fields. It also reveals a certain tension between the school and adolescents. The institution seeks to present broad knowledge that may become important in the future of civic and professional life, and adolescents often ask “why do I need to learn this?”. Anaïs' intuition that her internship at the “École Maternelle” will require school knowledge that, to a large extent, she had neglected, seems to be a sign in the film that, despite the immediate interests of young people, the school's role in presenting is still important. a comprehensive set of knowledge and skill development.

* Paulo Carrano He is a professor at the Faculty of Education and at the Graduate Program in Education at UFF.

* Ana Karina Brenner is a professor at the Faculty of Education and at the Graduate Program in Education at UERJ.



France, Documentary, 2019

Directed by: Sébastien Lifshitz

Cast: Anais, Emma

Available on Fine Arts – A la carte.

BARRERE, Anne. School and adolescence. A sociological approach. Lisbon: Piaget Editions, 2014.

BOYHOOD: From Childhood to Youth. Director: Richard Linklater, 2014. Color, 165 min.

CARRANO, Paulo Cesar Rodrigues. Internet social networks in a high school: between mutual learning and school knowledge. Perspective, Florianópolis, v. 35, no. 2, p.395-421, Apr./June. 2017.

DUBET, François. The slope of the institution🇧🇷 Barcelona: Gedisa, 2006.

BALLET, Catherine. Pour réaliser son documentaire, le réalisateur Sébastien Lifshitz a filmé régulièrement, entre leurs 13 ans et leurs 18 ans, deux jeunes teens, Anaïs et Emma. Il nous raconte ce tournage singulier. Le Parisien, 09.09.2020.

SPOSITO, Marilia Pontes Sposito. A non-school perspective in the sociological study of school. In: USP Magazine, São Paulo, n.57, p. 210-226, March/May 2003.


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