Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

The Millennials (TV)
Review by Greg Wright

Only rarely have I gotten a credit on a TV series, so I won’t be bashful about tooting my own horn, so to speak.

This Thursday on Ovation (Comcast channel 202, 715 HD), the six-part documentary series Millennials debuts. Director/producer Rick Stevenson (Expiration Date, Promised Land, Restless Natives) tells the stories of twenty-two twenty-somethings, tracing their development from alternately carefree and troubled gradeschoolers through the gauntlet of junior high and high school and into early adulthood.

There’s a method to Stevenson’s madness. Much as with Michael Apted’s Seven-Up series or Richard Linklater’s Oscar-winning Boyhood, Millennials packs the power punch of a time-lapse effect. Unlike Apted’s approach, Stevenson interviews his subjects yearly. Unlike Linklater’s work, Stevenson’s is non-fiction.

The first episode is appropriately titled “Secrets” and includes the stories of Danielle, a girl whose ordinary American dreams had fallen apart by the time she was twelve, including stints in Fairfax for suicidal depression; of another “normal” boy who “snapped” as a teen and through a sense of isolation sank into a pattern of promiscuity, drugs, and cutting; and of a girl who has “always felt 100% uncomfortable in my skin,” a victim of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. But these stories don’t just wallow in the details. These one-time suffering teens are now adults who can counsel others that “your life can change,” or that “it’s nice to be able to be me.”

millennials-insetSo how am I connected to the project? I am listed in the end credits as part of the “Bloom Team.” Bloom is the technology that we have developed for capturing stories like those told in Millennials. Footage for the Ovation series was filmed in one-on-one sessions with the director, Rick Stevenson—but we have also developed apps for the iPad which use the same approach in school and therapeutic settings. I started working with Rick in 2009 as his chief technologist in this effort. The Bloom Method is the third generation of our story-capture tools, and it is being utilized right now in both the Highline and Tukwila school districts.

The initial group of children that Rick started working with included his nephews and neighbor kids. Rick’s father was an administrator with the Shoreline School District in Seattle, so when Rick saw how well his approach was working with his pilot group, he brought the idea to Shoreline schools with support from the Shoreline Historical Museum. Most of the kids featured in the Millennials series are part of that ongoing Shoreline project. Overall, though, Rick is now working directly with close to 300 kids in eight different countries, the majority of which Rick has met in his travels as a filmmaker. And we have another 800 using the Bloom technology on six continents—not to mention the thousands of adults who have also used permutations of the Bloom Method.

Because Millennials can be tagged as “reality TV,” the question arises: How truthful are these stories? The kids know they’re being filmed; aren’t they tempted to act out for Rick and the camera?

Well, you can’t keep up an act for ten or twelve years. Far too much real life intrudes. The big thing with the work that Rick does is that he really spends time with these kids—and in a way the day-to-day masks that kids wear for others are the staged and exaggerated personae that they present to protect themselves. What you see on camera in Millennials are the true selves that kids rarely reveal.

I’m sure that watching these films has been incredibly hard and painful for their families—just like my mom hearing the truth of my own struggles with bullying and pornography were literally unbelievable when she finally heard about them when I was in my thirties. But parents, in particular, are usually the last to know what’s going on.

The young adults that agreed to have their stories told in Millennials are incredibly brave, and understand the value in encouraging others to be heard. We like to say that the Bloom Method helps kids “find themselves before they lose themselves.” These are struggles that need to be dealt with while they’re happening, rather than sublimated only to surface much later in dysfunctional adults. And honestly, what you see on Millennials is just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the stories we hear are just gut-wrenching.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people right now are scared about the societal impacts of gender-neutral bathrooms, the Internet, hook-up culture, and drugs. And programs like Millennials can appear to validate a lot of seemingly narcissistic angst. But guess what? The damage has already been done. Long ago. The pressures of our increasingly pressurized and disconnected culture have wrought immeasurable damage on us, and on our kids. As Jade says in this Wednesday’s episode, “half the crazy shit being talked about in society is just so artificial.”

Meanwhile, the pain is real. While we’re worrying about what the next five years may hold, the kids right next to us are dying on the vine—and what they need is an ear that listens and a heart that feels. And a lot of patience and prayer, if you’re into that. Children do not mature overnight; in the meantime, there’s a great deal of suffering and wandering. You can’t really prevent the “Prodigal Child” from self-destruction—but you can be the parent from that story waiting with welcome and open arms when the wanderer returns home. You might also consider venturing out to the pigsty from time to time as a show of support. Get your hands dirty. Be the mom or dad that kids really want to talk to. Or be the neighbor who’s there for the kids who feel they can’t.

For my part, as a childless adult, I often lay awake at night and wonder, “How would my life be different if I’d had access to this when I was ten and being bullied, or twelve and first getting hooked on porn?” And I have to remind myself that you can’t really play the “What if?” game. My wife and I both led lives not a great deal unlike those featured in Millennials—which, as it turned out, resulted in each of us being able to be a great help to the other as adults. So the obvious answer to my “What if?” is: I wouldn’t be married to Jenn, and we wouldn’t share the rich spiritual heritage that we have. But the possibility of such improbable (even miraculous) outcomes is no excuse for us to turn a blind eye to the suffering that’s around us, or bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not there at all.

I can say without hesitation that it’s better for a girl to stop cutting on herself today than five years from now, or for a boy to start developing healthy connections with real girls at sixteen rather than at thirty-six. And those are the paths of healing, restoration, and reconciliation that the Bloom Method are trying to open up. Kids need to know that they’re not weird, and that they’re not alone. And they need to know there’s a hope and a future. That’s what we hope is communicated through Millennials.

Watch the program, and watch it with your kids. Be shocked, if you must—and get over it.

Then, watch out!


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