Tribeca ’08: Going on 13 (review)

I think I’m ugly. But sometimes I think I’m beautiful.

I felt so many different things, all of them positive and wonderful but also sad and depressing, as I watched this extraordinary documentary about four California girls on the edge of puberty. I’m white and grew up mostly in middle-class suburbia, and I’m going on 40, and yet my heart ached for these girls — one black, two Hispanic, one Indian-American, all living in the inner city — because what they are going through is so similar to how I remember my own childhood: being aware of sexism even at the age of nine or ten, seeing the boys get their way and resenting it while at the same time being intrigued by them and their wildness; trying to navigate the valley between what my parents seemed to expect of me and what I wanted to do as a smart, adventurous child; all the strange emotions that discovering myself as a person dredged up. In the feature debut of filmmakers Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez, we meet, over the course of four years, from age nine to age 13, Ariana, Esmerelda, Isha, and Rosie, all brilliant and fiery children in their own ways, and are granted an intimate peek at the grief and the joy and the uncertainty in their lives: in passionate Isha, who keeps her mouth shut except in karate class, where she can safely scream with abandon; in bubbly Esme, who has idiots tell her to her face, “I don’t like Mexicans.” It’s heartbreaking to see that girls who are young enough to be my own children aren’t facing, a generation later, a world any more accommodating to their needs as human beings as the one I grew up in. But it’s also strangely stirring in a way, too. Not that I would wish a rocky adolescence on anyone, of course. It’s just that, in a culture that values the stories of boys and men more than those of girls and women, here are the voices of girls and women in all their complicated and human glory.

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