Single mom Sharon Liese knew challenges awaited her daughter in high school.
“I knew the four years coming up were going to be transformative,” says Liese. But back in 2002, she couldn’t find the sort of helpful information she was looking for — a parent- and teen-friendly documentary that would shed light on the high school experience.
So her search became a do-it-yourself project.
She got approval to film in her daughter’s Overland Park, Kan., high school. She put out a call to incoming freshman girls, and enlisted a diverse group of 12.
Then, that fall, the rookie filmmaker began a four-year effort to cover those girls’ stories, both in and out of school, as they progressed from ninth grade through graduation in spring 2006.
The result is “High School Confidential,” a candid and revealing eight-hour series whose second episode airs 10 p.m. EDT Monday on WEtv.
Most episodes focus on a couple of the students, blending footage throughout high school with on-camera interviews as each girl grows up before the viewer’s eyes.
Issues include drug and alcohol abuse, sexual experimentation, broken families, cliques and social pressures, sickness — all part of the curriculum of teenhood.
Meet the girls
Jessi is an aspiring actress who still lives in Overland Park. In high school, she suffered from depression, drank too much, and had a miscarriage. Upon graduation she would move to Los Angeles on a theater scholarship, but after 10 days she was seized by a panic attack and returned home.
Even Lauren, the school’s drill-team captain and an honor-roll student, wasn’t spared. A medical test for an unrelated condition revealed she had a brain tumor.
Liese’s daughter, Justine, had bowed out early as an on-camera subject.
“She did one interview,” says Liese, but they agreed it was too close for comfort. “She wasn’t gonna answer my questions real honestly with me.”
But Justine involved herself in other ways. As a student at the school, she could serve as a go-between, scouting activities and events worth filming.
And it was Justine’s suggestion that the girls be furnished with video cameras to use in situations where a crew might not be welcome. Good idea: When a party starts, the partyers bring out the camera.
Was Liese surprised when she screened some of this footage?
“Yes, I was!” she replies with a burst of laughter.
“High School Confidential” is a remarkable exercise of trust at many levels.
Liese was a well-regarded member of the community when her project got the go-ahead from school officials.
“I had been a good PTA mom,” she says.
Meanwhile, she trusted herself to pull off this ambitious venture. She owns a corporate marketing firm that creates videos (it remained her “day job”) so she was no stranger to film production. But never had she tackled anything on the scale of a documentary series.
“I always had faith that something would come of it,” says Liese during a recent visit with a couple of her “stars” to New York. “But you don’t really know until you get into editing.”
And only at the conclusion of shooting did she land a partner, New Line Television, which supplied a team of two dozen editors to help sculpt her 500 hours of raw footage into narratives.
‘I realized that other people will learn from this’
But the “Confidential” girls might have taken the greatest leap of faith, counting on the fairness of how they would be depicted.
Why did Jessi say yes to being in the film, as she faced ninth grade already full of fear? The would-be actress recalls thinking “maybe it’ll look good on my resume.”
“But as I got into more and more situations, and made more and more mistakes, and learned from them, I realized that other people will learn from this, too, if they see it,” she adds.
“At the beginning, it didn’t seem like a big thing,” says Lauren, thinking back to Liese’s invitation. “I was like, ‘OK, she wants to do a little documentary? Good! I’ll have a home video.”’
And though no one was prepared for the brain tumor story line, Lauren and her parents let filming continue as she got more tests and waited for a diagnosis. (She ultimately was given a clean bill of health, and is now a sophomore at the University of Denver.)
“For all the girls, she kind of become a second mother,” Jessi agrees. “She let us talk to her about everything.”
“And she kept it so private and confidential!” Lauren marvels. “There were big issues for her not to talk to our parents about. But she was very respectful of that. She kept so much to herself.”
“You guys KNEW that eventually it was gonna come out,” Liese chuckles. “There was a camera there!”
But they must have trusted Liese to make good on her promise to herself.
“I wanted the series to be as sympathetic as possible,” she says. “And I didn’t want to judge.”