What’s it like to be a 14-year-old girl in the ’90s? Lisa has been going steady with the same guy since she turned 12 and hasn’t missed a day of Catholic school in three years. Raelene has had a string of abusive boyfriends; she left high school to care for her baby daughter. De’Yona lives with her grandmother and dreams of being a singer while steering clear of the path of drug abuse, which consumed her mom. Anna’s protective Vietnamese immigrant parents want her to study hard so she can become a doctor; they won’t even let her look at a boy until she’s at least 18.
Winner of the 1997 Sundance Grand Jury Prize, Girls Like Us captures the extraordinary drama in the lives of four young working-class girls from South Philadelphia over an eventful four-year span, from ages 14 to 18. Bearing witness for a population rarely given a chance to be heard speaking frankly about their lives, filmmakers Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio’s sharply observed, tightly woven film celebrates the strength and spirit of four remarkable individuals struggling to shape their identities as women in the ’90s. According to Variety, Girls Like Us provides a vibrant, persuasive portrait of four complex, high-spirited individuals. Intimate and understanding, the filmmakers’ gaze almost functions as a pal who shares the girls’ experiences and listens to their thoughts as they confront or reflect on teendom’s crises and choices.”
Girls Like Us will air nationally Tuesday, July 22 at 10 PM ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the POV series, broadcast television’s only continuing showcase for independent non-fiction film. POV celebrates 10 years of innovative, independent and interactive programming beginning Tuesdays June 3 through August 5.
Though they’re an ethnically diverse group (De’Yona is African-American, Lisa is Italian-American, Raelene is of mixed European and Native American heritage, and Anna is first generation Vietnamese-American), all the girls must confront issues of class, violence, and sexism. Using a fluid hand-held camera, Girls Like Us follows the teenagers as they go about their daily lives: at school, at work, at the beach, getting ready for the junior prom, hanging out with friends and family. Relaxed in the non-judgmental, supportive presence of the filmmakers, the girls speak candidly about the problems and challenges of growing up female.
“We got the idea for Girls Like Us in 1991 at the height of the Madonna craze, when the perception of female sexuality seemed to be changing so quickly. At that time there was a confluence of forces at work — new research on girls and self-esteem was being published, teenage pregnancy was hitting the front pages, and there was a tremendous debate around issues of sexual identity, gender identity and desire,” said DiFeliciantonio. “But unfortunately it seemed that teenage girls weren’t being heard from, particularly working class teens. So we set-out to find the stories behind the statistics and diatribe…to explore female teenage sexual desire and to find out how feminism has filtered down to working class girls of the next generation,” added Wagner.
Girls Like Us offers a rare and revealing inside look at how Anna, Lisa, De’Yona and Raelene handle crucial decisions regarding matters that will have a profound effect on the course of their lives. “The focus is on us listening to them…we sort of ‘hung out’ with them as peers. We tried to keep as non-judgmental a frame as possible, because I think that when adults deal with kids it’s hard to stand by and allow a young person to make a mistake,” says DiFeliciantonio. “Obviously at times intervention is needed, but adolescents should be allowed to make mistakes and be encouraged to find that strength within themselves to turn things around.”