I don’t tend to watch a lot of movies. I have a hard time paying attention because it feels like I should be doing something else while I’m watching it (reading or writing). I like watching television shows on DVD, but I’m exceptionally slow at doing so for the same reasons. It’s hard for me to permit myself an hour or two to just watch something.
A couple weeks ago, I was alerted to a documentary that was streaming on Netflix that sounded like it was well-worth devoting my full attention to: Mortified Nation. I was not disappointed.
Did you keep a diary when you were a teenager? I know I did, and I still remember bits and pieces of what I wrote in it, too. There were some less-than-kind words about people in my life, lengthy passages about boys who I did — and most certainly did not — like, and I’m positive there’s a lot of pretty awful poetry mixed in as well (I can recall one poem I was particularly proud of that I wrote in middle school about a girl I’d befriended one summer who had a drinking problem and I thought poetry would help “solve” that problem).
Mortified Nation is a film about adults who are willing to stand up in front of a crowd and read passages from their teen diaries. It takes footage from the live stage performances, which are filmed in several big cities throughout the United States, and in between performances, several producers of the show, as well as others (including young adult author Cecil Castellucci), talk about why sharing those diary entries even decades later still feels so intimate and raw. Adults on stage reading still find sharing those things they wrote about first love, about fights with parents and siblings, about tough times at school something that makes them vulnerable, but audiences — those at the performance and those watching on film — find most of those stories to be so funny.
While watching, I found myself laughing so hard I was hurting at points. It’s not laughing at someone’s pain; it’s laughing because those things people wrote took me back to things I know I had experienced or thought or felt or written myself when I was in middle or high school. There’s something unifying about those feelings, even if the situations were different.
Part of why I think Mortified Nation is worth watching is that it’s the kind of film that people who work with teens will be able to walk away from and find new appreciation for the kids they work with. There’s something humbling about watching adults share their teen angst and pains, and while I was watching, I couldn’t help but think about the teens I saw in the library and appreciate some of their words and behaviors for what they were.
Back in college was the first time I ever worked with teenagers, barely out of my teens myself. I volunteered at the local middle school, in their band, and I helped students become better performers and instrumentalists. During training for the gig, one of the teachers said something to me that every once in a while I’m reminded of: teens who are this age aren’t bad. They’re dorks. And watching this movie, hearing these adults confront their own dorkness on stage, reminded me of that simple mental framework. It’s not belittling; it’s simply a reminder that teens are in a different space than adults and it’s a necessity to accept them where they are. Mortified Nation is the epitome of adults facing that different space with themselves and an audience.
Fans of young adult fiction, regardless of whether they work with teens or not, should check this movie out. There’s so much here that will resonate because it’s what’s being read in YA fiction. I think it does an excellent job of reminding those who love the teen voice what that voice really looks like and showcases the whys and hows of some of the dumb decision making in which teens partake — not to mention that it gives some nice examples of creative, crass language use.
I highly recommend Mortified Nation as a worthwhile watch, especially if you’re in the mood for the kind of film that will make you laugh (and cringe). You can find out more about it here.