Campus & Community

Shades of Gray: ‘Playing House’ at the Harvard Film Archive

4 min read

Puberty isn’t easy. Nor is filmmaking. “Playing House,” a documentary film about five adolescent girls at Fay School in Southboro, Mass., takes on both. The film, shot over three years at the prestigious and venerable boarding school, fairly pulsates with pubescent angst. On May 5, at the Carpenter Center’s Harvard Film Archive, “Playing House” director Jane Gray discussed the twin challenges of her past several years – adolescence and artistry.

“I was very curious to explore the reality of what it means to hit puberty – growing up and not knowing how to do it,” Gray said in the Q & A after the film screening. The audience of 75 or so had plenty of questions about that reality, including one or two challenging ones. The film chronicles five seventh- and eighth-grade girls in their first year of boarding school at Fay. The girls – among them two international students, a South Korean and a Mexican – move into Webster House as strangers. What unites Lara, Amanda, Joanna, Cathy, and Lucia – besides disorientation and confusion – are concerns that apparently transcend regional background: How does my makeup look? When will he kiss me? What is the right dress to buy for the dance?

“Playing House” debuted March 28 at the New England Film Festival to a capacity crowd of 300 at the Museum of Fine Arts. In the film, the girls grope to find balance and to understand themselves and others. Sometimes they succeed. Other times they skin their knees. At the Carpenter Center, Gray was not shy to share with the mixed audience her own efforts to find a balance in the making of the film. Gray, who graduated from Harvard with a psychology concentration in 1995, said, “It took many, many months of editing to figure out really what the story was going to be.”

Support from the University’s Film Study Center, which promotes nonfiction filmmaking in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, helped, said Gray. Center staff, like director Lucien Taylor, who introduced Gray and the film May 5, provided entrées and encouragement. Gray, who already had film editing experience, necessarily provided everything else. “I was very confused about what my role was as filmmaker and what my role was as someone in their [the schoolgirls’] lives,” Gray recalls about her uncertain moments at Webster House, adding, “That was a balance that I was finding through making the film.” Gray, herself a Fay School alumna and former resident of Webster House, had the perfect perch to find that balance because the school gave her a room in the dorm.

At 6 feet tall, the brown-haired Gray stands out in her jeans and thrift-store-looking leather jacket. However, as a cinema verité filmmaker, Gray does not call attention to herself in “Playing House.” She seldom speaks in the film, and when she does, her words are spare and neutral-sounding. The film’s voice is not Gray’s, but Amanda’s sobbing on the dorm pay phone, telling her grandmother that no one wants to pick her up at the St. Paul/Minneapolis airport, or Lucia’s asking, “Do I look all right?”

At the Carpenter Center, Gray was gracious with her time, taking all questions with aplomb and then inviting one and all to continue the discussion at John Harvard’s. Before the celebratory beers, a beaming Gray leaned over to hug friends, shook hands, accepted a bouquet, and fielded more questions. Many of the final questions were of the “what’s next” variety, but Gray has not finished her work with “Playing House.” Now, her company, Purple House Productions (, must distribute the film and build an audience. Girls, she says, “have a hard time believing that others girls are feeling the same way.” “One of my hopes would be that other girls could see this film,” she adds, and “feel less alone in their struggles.”