Reality television is so commonplace these days that we tend to forget the people on these shows are, in fact, real people with real lives, regardless of whether they behave that way in front of a camera. You Look Different In Real Life takes a look at what it might be like for a group of young kids to grow up in the partial public eye as part of an ongoing documentary series, and it thoughtfully considers both how these kids are shaped by the experience of being in movies and how their own experiences shape the content of the movies.
The book focuses on five kids, now teenagers, who signed on at a young age to participate in documentaries about their lives every 5 years from 6 to 21. It’s time for the third documentary, Five at Sixteen, and Justine, the “star” of the first two films, is reluctant to participate in the third. Five kids who had started as friends were now at an awkward impasse. There are a variety of issues amongst this group of characters. Justine no longer talks to any of the documentary kids aside from Felix. She bailed on former best friend Rory after no longer having the patience to put up with Rory’s social issues (and mild autism); she’s bitter at Nate, a former target for bullying who grew up to become the popular star of the swim team; and she’s scared to talk to Kiera, the girl whose family life was shattered on film for the world to see.
Despite how their lives have changes, all five eventually agree to be a part of Five at Sixteen, and throughout the process of shooting the film we see Justine’s struggle to feel like she’s someone worth watching, but we also see a continuing evolution of the relationship between the five main characters as a result of being thrown together again. There were some really interesting insights here on friendships, perceptions and miscommunications. These kids have all been running on different versions of the truth, and it’s not until they are forced to spend time with each other that they start to unravel the actual truth, and even that is a tense, tedious process.
Tense and tedious for the characters, but fascinating to me as a reader. I really liked how both the fictional directors of the Five At films and the author of the book tried very hard to avoid contrived situations or set-ups. Justine was always aware of when the cameras were on, but there was never a feeling that they were being overly-intrusive. The book touched on the issue of the documentaries taking things too far; not only filming but including scenes that crossed a line, but it did so really subtly.
And really, that subtlety was present in the entire book, which was one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much. While the documentary is certainly a big part of the book, the characters and their relationships are the focus. I appreciated that the documentary acted as a vehicle to present this story but didn’t really overtake it. It also touched on several pretty heavy issues, but did so very delicately and respectfully. It was not an “issue book,” but it didn’t shy away from them either.
I wish that, for a book so character-based, I had connected more with all the main characters. Given there are five teenagers who are an important part of this story, it’s understandable that I might not feel a strong connection to all of them. But at the very least I would have liked to have really wrapped my mind around Justine, since she was doing the narration. I felt like the descriptions of her scenes in the older documentaries gave a glimpse of what I was supposed to think her personality should be, but she never really displayed that in present day. Part of that was intentional – one of Justine’s biggest issues is that she doesn’t think she’s as interesting at 16 as she was at 6 or 11 – but by the end of the book I still felt like I didn’t really see the vivacious Justine that I was told to expect.
Despite that, I still had a really good time reading Justine’s story. It was surprisingly insightful and I was easily pulled in to the emotional ups and downs that went along with each character. And I loved how Justine quietly found her groove because of the documentary, not in spite of it. At the end, I felt like I had gone on a journey with these characters and was left feeling fulfilled and optimistic.