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Howard Rosenberg / Television

To Learn About Teens, Go Along for 'The Ride'

November 01, 1994|Howard Rosenberg

"Teens talk straight about drugs, crime and killing on the next 'Donahue!' " bellowed the talk-show promo, a reminder of one reason why adolescents watch so little television compared with most other age groups. Rarely do they recognize themselves on TV.

That bad situation would worsen still without ABC's "My So-Called Life," this season's TV headquarters for teen Angst . At times tied up in knots by inner turmoil, there's no truer teen on TV than the middle-class 15-year-old played by Claire Danes on the Thursday night series that, despite its blemishes, deserves a better fate than the likely cancellation awaiting it due to low ratings.

In a glossier neighborhood, coming-of-age texture flattens to a sheeny smoothness on Fox's durable "Beverly Hills, 90210," which still pulls a sizable audience despite its narrow, fancy-pants universe of creamy zitlessness. And the youthful characters in the struggling "Party of Five" continue to wear halos as impenetrable as plexiglass shields in this week's special deployment of that new Fox series in the time slot following "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"Party of Five" is an idealized ZIP code where the Salinger siblings, ages toddler to 24, face an uncertain life of orphanhood with a resoluteness worthy of a standing ovation. Problems here are sizable but never unmanageable, thanks to scripts that apply tenderness and sensitivity in sweeping, whitewashing brush strokes. Although likably gentle and thoughtful, "Party of Five" is probably closer kin to the planet Pluto than Earth. It's life as you'd like it to be, a middle-class fantasy of softened edges where young people face hardship--on Wednesday the raging hormones of 16-year-old Bailey command center stage along with a crucial carpentry project by family head Charlie--with wisdom and maturity beyond their years. And where they, and everyone in their realm, seem ultimately to do the right thing.

Do yourself a favor tonight, though, and check out the KCET premiere of "The Ride," a quite, extraordinary four-part documentary series in which life itself often rages alongside youthful libido.

Although created and nurtured on a $1-million budget by Shauna Garr, a 30-year-old Los Angeles filmmaker who has worked extensively for MTV, "The Ride" is at once about young people and by them. Ages 17 to 19, Garr's six "travelers," as they're called, logged 9,000 miles in a van during two months in 1993 in their quest to capture-- cinema verite -style--the tone of a cross-section of youth in Denver, a Native American reservation in South Dakota, Chicago, Dayton, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Dallas and Albuquerque.

There are people to like in "The Ride," and people to dislike. There are gangbangers, gangbanger wanna-bes and kids working hard to achieve mainstream goals. There are blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. There are gays and gay bashers, poverty and racism--much of it raw and unfiltered, with many subjects displaying amazing openness in front of the camera.

Although Garr had the final edit, the youthful filmmakers shot, interviewed and did much of the editing for "The Ride." A series about youth for youth? "I wanted something not made by adults and not manipulated by adults," Garr says, "but real teen videos that adults may not even want to watch."

Yet they will want to, for the age appeal of "The Ride"--and its insights into young minds and their environments--are transcendent.

With Garr and other adult mentors staying in nearby hotels, the "travelers" hung out and often even lived with their young "guides," the names given these subjects who were selected from thousands of applicants responding to ads placed in schools and other locations across the United States.

"The only way to do this was to have young people spend time with other young people without adults in the room," Garr says. "It's not that people won't talk to somebody 40 years old, but you cannot crawl up in a sleeping bag with a 15-year-old girl if you're 40."

Each of the eight half-hour segments (KCET is airing two per evening) begins with Garr handing out assignments reminiscent of "Mission: Impossible" ("Your guide in Illinois is Bobby Nelson. Bobby Nelson is 17 years old. . . ."). Each segment interweaves two stories that are usually separate, but sometimes juxtaposed in ways that make a narrative point.

"Guides" Mac, 19, and Frank, 18, daily confront the mean streets of Philadelphia, for example. "My mother died when I was 6," says Mac, who lives alone in a basement room. "How did she pass away?" one of the young filmmakers asks. "She was shot in the head," Mac replies. "She didn't pass away."

Absorbed by other matters in a well-to-do section of town, meanwhile, relatively pampered 15-year-old Leslie copes with private school, worries that she's fat and decides she needs a therapist to discuss things "you cannot talk about with your parents."

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