Adolescence is a perpetually fertile ground for exploration. It's a confusing time, and once we're out of it, it exists as a series of disconnected snapshots: painful moments, confusion, catharsis, awkwardness—all in the name of learning what it means to grow up. The high school narrative has been done to death, but those earlier years — the formative, mysterious ones that bridge the gap between childhood and teenage turmoil — are less well-documented. For his documentary The Before Project, Seattle-based filmmaker Terence Brown tracked the life of his son Jack and his classmates, exploring those raw early days of growing up.
In your project video, you mention noticing that those early adolescent years are interesting because our memories are defined by what we liked rather than how we felt. Why do you think that is?
When I look at pictures of myself from that age like the one of me with the “Loverboy #1" T-shirt—a few years later, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in that shirt, but that summer of 1981, I remember KFRX in Lincoln was playing their one big song over and over, and I just loved it. I wanted to be so much like those guys from the MTV video. I wanted to be a rock star like that — popular, good looking, famous — all those things. But at 11 years old, you don’t usually play it cool, so I just headed to Sears and had that t-shirt made (with mom’s money).
So I suppose that truly summed up how I was feeling when I was 11: "Loverboy #1." Of course, we all express ourselves by what we like and buy, but during those years I think there’s a lot more raw and awkward emotion behind those choices.
How has making this changed the relationship with your son? How do he and his classmates feel about the project?
I have a really great relationship with my son and I have definitely had a few visceral flashbacks to his age when I watch him struggle with certain things. Jack has a physical disability that affects how he walks and runs.
We worry about bullying in middle school, but he really hasn’t experienced any serious bullying. It happens a little, but not too much. The kids at school have always been really great to Jack. I think in grade school, especially by the end, most of the kids have grown up together so they’re pretty used to all the quirks and differences that make each one of them unique. It’s just a little easier for kids to be themselves and experiment at this age, without worrying about the social risks.
The thing I love about these kids is that when it comes to doing this project or talking about this sort of stuff, they’re fairly non-plussed. It’s like, “Okay. Sure.” I don’t think they mind talking about it because it doesn’t seem like a big deal. In a couple of years, EVERYTHING will be a big deal.
What kind of insight do you now have into the minds of kids this age? Did you find any commonalities from kid to kid?
I think there are some universals about tweens that really interest me—the transitional limbo of these years. But I admit that I only really know what I see in front of me. I’m sure a class of fifth graders in Seoul or Kibera or Glasgow or South Chicago would have some similar experiences as 11 and 12 year olds but some dramatically different ones, as well. That really interests me too. There are also big differences just in the fifth graders that I’m interviewing in terms of where they’re at along the emotional and physical maturity arc.
Has making this film made you re-evaluate your own adolescent years?
I think in the bigger picture, these tween years go by so fast, and so much is happening to us developmentally and socially that a lot of us forget the details later because we were still very much works in progress. That’s how I felt, at least. I still don’t remember those years very well but I’ve come to appreciate that there was a lot more going on than I probably realized. Tweendom is associated with teeny boppers, boy bands and pretty terrible television but I think there’s also a lot of turbulence just beneath the surface and that’s part of what I am exploring in the film.
Did you have a hard time getting these kids to speak honestly to you?
I think talking honestly is easier for kids at this age than in a few years whey they may be more self-conscious. I’ve also gotten to know a number of them and their families over the years, which is really valuable. It would be harder to gain that trust if I hadn’t been there all these years, and that’s one of the reasons I think this is a unique opportunity.