Director Maureen Judge breaks down the unique yet relatable experience of teen girls navigating the modern age in her newest film 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait
Maureen Judge has made a career of exploring the lives of young women through film. She returns to this message in 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait, which features three female seniors in high school tackling gender and sexual identity, sexual assault, depression, and even prom. GOOD DOCS sat down with Judge to dive further into her mindset, experience and process while filming. Interview conducted by Grace Wagner.
Can you begin by briefly describing 17 AND LIFE DOESN’T WAIT?
I decided to make 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election, when the dream of her breaking the glass ceiling was shattered. I became fascinated by the challenges and surprises teenage girls face early in their lives, when they are on the cusp of becoming adults, so I went back to high school. Literally.
17 And Life Doesn’t Wait features three amazing teen girls, Kiki, Audrey and Mich, who open a window onto their senior year of high school—in the halls, on the dance floor, at the dinner table with parents and family, and marching in protest. You see first-hand how the outside world impacts their lives, shapes them, and for some, triggers an overwhelming sense of anxiety. During the filming, the #MeToo movement exploded, the Parkland shooting in Florida happened, university acceptances, scholarships and graduation created excessive stress and anxiety, and while the perennial senior prom remained a major focus, events around sexual identity, assault, and suicide, formed the very real backdrop to their lives.
What made you feel this film needed to be made?
I began to wonder what it was like for teen girls who, on the precipice of adulthood are growing up with conflicting expectations —under pressure to achieve and do what the boys do, while still living in a gender-divided culture. How are our next generation of adult women being affected by the political, economic and societal events of our time? Can they move beyond sexual politics?
Over 55% of today’s teen girls believe they get mixed messages from society: be smart, but not too smart; play sports, but not those sports; follow your dreams, but not in that field. Yet, despite these contrary signals, many girls are super-achievers or perfectionists, trying to be everything to everyone and it’s taking a toll. 50% of girls report anxiety and depression before graduating high school.
I believe you can only change attitudes and behavior if you understand them and know they exist. In 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait, the exploration of issues around conflicting expectations, gender equality and sexual identification through the eyes of teen girls and their families, opens a much-needed discussion on the pressures and struggles they encounter daily.
What were the reasons you chose these three particular girls that you ended up documenting?
After approximately one hundred interviews, we narrowed the participants down to Kiki, Audrey, and Mich, three dynamic and motivated individuals who are captivating to watch on screen. They each have a sense of humor, come from diverse backgrounds, and bring significantly different experiences and varied interests to the documentary. Being in the company of the girls while filming, I found I often drew on my experiences as a teenager to explore their inner lives. If you’re a teen, a millennial, a parent with girls, an educator, or just thinking back to your own teen years, their stories provide a lot of touch points with which you can empathize.
On meeting Kiki, her warmth, humor, and wit immediately struck me. She has a winning personality and is at ease sharing her life as an African American, and what it means to be an elite female athlete. The high cost of university means she’s under pressure to secure a scholarship and play varsity basketball. Kiki has a twin brother, also on his way to college, and her relationship with him is a hilarious contrast of opposites that keeps you amused and aware of her role as a girl in the family.
We can all relate to the anxiety of applying to university and that’s what I loved about Audrey’s story. She puts enormous pressure on herself to get into an elite college, which she believes will lead to her success as a woman in computer programming. Since her parents are originally from mainland China, Audrey is tasked with the subtleties of straddling two cultures, complicating her relationship with parents that don’t always share the same values.
I wanted Mich in the film because of her emotional vulnerability, visual talent, and ability to articulate her intimate and compelling personal narrative around some of the harsher realities girls encounter. At the beginning of filming, Mich is at a very low point. She is estranged from her mother, living alone on welfare, had recently experienced a sexual assault, and is coming to terms with her own sexuality.
Do you think the film is relatable to all 17-year-old girls?
Absolutely. Teenage life, high school, and parents are shared experiences in our society. I realize that all schools are not alike, but because Mich attends an alternative school, the film features both conventional and non-conventional education. In Mich’s school, the students learn the required curriculum using practical skills acquired through skateboard design, manufacturing and marketing, and street art.
The girls’ coming-of-age struggles featured in 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait are intimate and resonant. We see this in Kiki’s attempt to gain independence in the face of a controlling mom who she refers to as a ‘micro-manager,’ or in Mich’s evolving sexual journey when she shares the tragic love story of her first girlfriend. The intimate stories of sexual assault, depression and suicide shared by Mich and Audrey are unsettling, though not surprising to 17-year-old girls, some of who may be grappling with comparable experiences. And, Audrey and Kiki’s charming scenes of dressing for prom are a rite of passage for many teens.
How did having a very specific and short timeline affect the filmmaking process?
I decided to shoot the film over senior year because it’s a transformative time for high school students. As seniors, they’re looking ahead and making difficult choices that will impact their futures. The timeline gave me a structure for the film and within the ritual and routine of the school year I could look for subtle changes that signaled maturation in the girls.
Mich’s story was more complicated and many of her challenges are not related to school timelines. Nonetheless, we were able to capture her coming to grips with her past and present situation, as she rediscovers love with her mother and friends. If this hadn’t happened, I might still be filming. 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait reveals a moment in time—I leave the girls’ stories open-ended so we can imagine them moving forward and developing in new ways after the film’s end. For these girls, life is just beginning.
The girls shared some pretty personal moments, did you find they were quick to open up or did it take time to develop that relationship?
It’s an honor to have the girls and their families share their lives with me. Building trust and respect are key. I try to take time to get to know the participants and prefer to bring a camera to the locations once we have established a rapport. I live in the same city as Audrey and Mich, so it wasn’t difficult to set up in-person meetings with them. However, the process was trickier with Kiki because she lived in another city and we had our first meetings on Skype. But after a couple of times, we both felt ready to get together in-person, which meant flying with a crew to Orlando to begin filming. The first event we filmed with Kiki was Thanksgiving, where we got to know the whole family. You see in the film a big part of Kiki’s story is how important her family is to her, how warm they are, and how much fun they have teasing each other!
I tend to schedule filming around an event, one that’s preferably small and intimate, so I’m able to get close to the participants. When the camera is on, I listen very closely to the participants and withhold judgement, enabling the participants to be open and honest without feeling the need to put on a front. This allows me to capture and share telling and surprising moments. Larger events tend to work as introductory scenes or to indicate seasonal changes or celebrations.
I look for filming opportunities that could reveal moments of transition. In order to get to know Kiki more intimately, I filmed her showing me her bedroom. To my surprise, there was a pet bird in her room, which led to a funny story around a mix-up of over the sex of the bird and the fact that female birds don’t talk. While speculating on what she will do with the bird when she goes to college, she confided she was ready to leave home. Then, without thinking, as if setting it free, she took the bird out of its cage. In documentary, these spontaneous occurrences are referred to as gifts. You can’t plan for them, but you need to be alert to these moments which echo the participants’ inner thoughts.
They each live very different lives but there’s something similar about each of them. What do you think was the biggest commonality among them?
High school. But more than that, their commonality is the determination and resiliency they possess as they reach for their dreams. Kiki points out that ‘life doesn’t wait’, and by the end of the school year, each of the girls has found the courage to move forward in her independence, understanding, and ability to adapt.
Do you think this is a film specific for this time and generation or do you feel the sentiments are timeless?
Many of the challenges affecting the girls—gender inequality, the conflicting expectations placed on them, sexual assault, genuine fear of (mass) gun violence—are major contemporary issues. Hopefully, through education and action, in an idyllic future, these become cultural relics of the past. However, the coming-of-age story in 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait, of the girls discovering themselves and learning more than a few of life’s lessons, is timeless.
Do you think students will be able to see themselves in this film?
Yes, I believe the students can see themselves in the film because of shared backgrounds with the film’s economically and racially diverse participants. Also, the girls bring an eclectic array of interests and personal qualities to the screen, which allows students to see themselves positively reflected in the participants: from Mich’s skateboarding skills, her love of animals, and her ability to navigate adversity, to Kiki’s athletic talent, her composure, charisma, and perceptive self-awareness, to Audrey’s rebellious nature, academic prowess and ambitious dreams.
Although this film centers around young girls, what do you think non-female individuals can draw from the film?
We’ve all been to high school, are in it, or will be. So, I don’t think it’s a big stretch to find common touch points in the girls’ lives to discuss and gain insight. Because the stories in 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait are told by the girls themselves and often imbued with a sense of humor, their comments and actions have the effect of stimulating peer discussions with young people of all gender identities. Some of the bigger themes found in the documentary include: family bonds and the nature of duty, gender equality, and resilience.
Meanwhile, the storylines also bring up questions and concerns that appeal to all teens: living with controlling parents, excelling at sports, sibling rivalry, the drama of university applications, facing the fear of rejection or the converse, embracing success, grieving after a loss, and falling in love.
Who do you hope to reach with this film? What message do you want them to gather?
I hope 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait reaches young people, their families, and educators who can lead thought-provoking and engaging discussions around the issues the documentary brings up.
The central message I’d like the audience (12-20 years) to take away after watching 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait is that, like Kiki, Mich and Audrey, they can be strong, independently minded, resilient, ambitious and successful. And that success is not always about winning, but rather growing as a person.
The message for the secondary audience of parents and educators is that gender equality is paramount to the growth and maturity of girls in our society. As they gain the tools and self-confidence to develop to their full potential, they need to be encouraged and applauded.
How do you think the film can be used in an educational setting?
17 And Life Doesn’t Wait could be used in an educational setting to inspire the girls and open a discussion around being a young woman today. By examining and comparing Mich, Kiki and Audrey’s attitudes, relationships and challenges, conversations around role models, gender issues, women’s equality, mental health, and growing-up could be introduced.
Environments where the film could screen include: online educational webinars, in-class school screenings, teachers’ colleges, girls’ groups (e.g. Girl Scouts of America), STEM organizations, mental health organizations, and sports camps.
Do you plan to continue to pursue these themes and content in your future work?
Over the years, much of my work has dealt with themes around women, work and families. In my first documentary, And We Knew How To Dance: Women and WWI, I filmed twelve feisty women between the ages of 86-101 about their experiences entering the labour force in WWI. When I filmed them, I fell in love with these incredible women, who became like my grandmothers. What they were remembering in the film were their lives as young women in their teens and early twenties. Many years later, with 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait, I find I’m on the same trajectory, exploring the lives of a young generation of girls becoming women and challenged with making their mark in society. So, to answer your question, yes, I will continue to pursue the themes and content found in 17 And Life Doesn’t Wait in future films.
Is there anything else you want viewers to know?
Watching these girls shows there’s hope for the future!
Grace Wagner is a junior at the University of Southern California. She is studying Journalism with a minor in Cinematic arts. In combination with her experience in journalism, she is interested in utilizing the creative visuals of documentary and her passion for social justice to create a platform for marginalized communities and largely unheard voices.