An interesting - and far more "real" - alternative to the recently released DVD set of MTV's "reality" show "Laguna Beach", "Chain Camera" is a documentary (it would have been even better as a weekly series like "Beach") that focuses on the lives of teenagers at John Marshall High School in California - the same school where "Buffy: The Vampire Slayer" and "Grease" were filmed.
"Chain Camera" certainly operates on an interesting concept: 10 cameras were given to a group of high school seniors, who filmed their story, then handed the cameras over to another teen the next week. At the end of the whole process, director Kirby Dick had hundreds of hours of footage to choose from. The result is an open book of interesting and varied personalities, as we hear funny, touching and emotional stories from a group of kids from very different backgrounds.
All of the kids face problems that many teens face today, from depression to eating disorders to self-esteem issues to racial issues to coming from a broken home and having to help raise themselves. They discuss sex (there's a lot of chat about sex), relationships, crushes that are and aren't returned and their feelings on their lives and potential futures. One girl worries that she'll lose her father, who suffers from health problems after a recent heart attack, while another has to improve his failing grades in order to play football. One poor kid is socially awkward, and his mom asks him some pretty personal questions for an on-camera interview.
Unlike a lot of reality shows, the kids simply say whatever's on their minds and, surprisingly, they don't seem to be playing up to the camera. Although the kids sometimes do not frame the camera terribly well, the majority of the film actually demonstrates pretty good - yet still amateur - camera use. The camera holds pretty steady for most of the interviews, and pans fairly smoothly to follow any action. There's no lighting and no rules how to film, but the visuals are certainly not at all the mess that they could have been.
Despite only being on-screen for a few minutes each (the documentary runs about 85 minutes and only focuses on a handful of students), there are a lot of very interesting individuals highlighted, making one wish that "Chain Camera" could have been a series instead of just a documentary, which would allow some of the personalities to get more screen time. Despite each of the students profiled having only a little bit of time on-screen, as a whole, "Chain Camera" is a moving, entertaining and thought-provoking look at the state of high school kids today, and what they think about and face in their lives.
Note: The film is unrated, but there are instances of cursing, sexual dialogue and drug talk. The subjects definitely do not censor themselves.
VIDEO: "Chain Camera" is presented in the documentary's original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. Image quality is what one would expect from fairly low-budget cameras - sharpness and detail varies from mediocre to good, some images look blown out/overexposed and some low-light shots appear grainy. However, at least this transfer appears to present the material accurately. No edge enhancement is seen, shimmering is at a minimum and the elements used are in fine shape. Colors also vary, but look about as good as one could hope for, given the filming situation.
SOUND: The stereo audio track is fairly primitive, yet captures the dialogue about as well as can be, given the low budget. There are times when viewers may need to bring up the volume a bit to hear some of the comments when there is music playing in the background of the scene, or multiple people are talking but otherwise, the sound was satisfactory. There are descriptive subtitles available for the hearing impaired.
EXTRAS: The main supplement is a commentary with director Kirby Dick, producer Eddie Schmidt and students Amy, Cinnamon, Ethan and Jesse.
"Back To School With Kirby Dick" is a "making of" documentary, where Dick explains his thoughts behind what he was going for with the documentary - giving kids from mixed/lower incomes camera would give them access to the media and allow them to broadcast their thoughts about themselves and their generation. We also hear some other details about the making of the documentary, such as his thoughts about getting director's credit (despite not being behind the camera), how some kids didn't want to participate, and how plans to make another film with the same students in the future (similar to Michael Apted's "7 Up" series) and other topics.
"Woman With a Movie Camera" has producer Dody Dorn discussing her feelings about the making of the movie - after figuring out how to operate the camera she's using to interview herself. She provides a few enjoyable insights, but this material has been covered better in Dick's featurette.
Finally, we also get deleted scenes (Tim, Fernando, Winifred and Ethan), deleted sequences (Lizeth, Nancy, Anna and Friends and an extended prom sequence), an alternate title sequence and finally, the theatrical trailer.
Final Thoughts: "Chain Camera" is a successful experiment that only provides a glimpse of different lives, yet the whole gives us a moving and engaging look at what many of today's young people experience. The DVD offers fine audio/video quality and a lot of very enjoyable supplements. Recommended.