This incisive and compelling documentary chronicles the lives of five seventh- and eighth-grade girls through their first year at the elite Fay School, the oldest junior boarding school in America. With great sensitivity to individual nuance and a sharp eye for significant moments of interaction, filmmaker Jane Gray reveals how deftly these 12- and 13-year-olds learn and practice “womanly” arts of psycho-social warfare while dealing with complex personal issues such as body image, class and sexual identity, family dysfunction, and self-worth.
The film takes place primarily in Webster House, the dormitory the girls share, where their everyday lives unfold: they make friends and enemies, discuss their first dates, compete with and bully one another, share intimacies and jokes, and sleep with stuffed animals. The dorm setting provides an unusual blend of privilege and egalitarianism to which each of the girls responds in her own way.
Through a series of keenly observed and richly detailed vignettes, the film explores how each girl negotiates brutal social interactions and copes with cultural and class differences — all the while growing up and maturing into young women far away from home. The film begins in September, when their parents kiss and hug the girls good-bye, and concludes in June, when their good-byes to one another are surprisingly teary given the rocky year they’ve shared.
Amanda, an overweight girl with acne who comes from the Midwest, is an unexpected addition to this privileged setting. Orphaned and sent away to learn manners, Amanda faces many challenges fitting in with the skinny rich girls around her. As she comes into power and begins to dominate her dorm mates, she seems at times like an underdog making good and at others like an appalling bully in her disregard for others.
In particular, Amanda has it in for Joanna, a petite, blond, “goody-two-shoes” who seems to have everything. Perfectly poised and composed, Joanna is more comfortable pleasing adults and playing with dolls than worrying about cliques, clothes, or boys. Joanna’s roommate Lucia, from Mexico, is caught in the middle, but learns to manipulate the situation and stay on good terms with both other girls.
“Playing House” is a revelatory window on to the world of adolescent girls, at times darkly funny, at times deeply affecting, and always astute and evocative. It will engage students and stimulate thought and discussion in a wide range of courses in psychology, sociology, women’s and gender studies, cultural anthropology, American studies, and education. It was produced by Jane Gray.