LOS ANGELES – She may play a superhero on the big screen, but American actress Brie Larson thinks the real heroes are young people successfully navigating the roller coaster of adolescence.
And it was the star of Marvel superhero flick Captain Marvel’s (2019) own struggle to find self-worth and self-acceptance that led her to create a documentary series celebrating these coming-of-age journeys.
Premiering on Disney+ on Thursday, Growing Up follows a diverse group of 11 people, aged 18 to 22, as they share deeply personal stories about overcoming social, familial and internal obstacles, with key moments in their lives re-enacted in each episode.
Struggling to fit in is a common theme for these young adults, whether it is because of being black, gay or disabled. But each eventually finds his or her way.
The 10 half-hour episodes are directed by Larson, 32, as well as American actress Yara Shahidi, the 22-year-old star of the sitcom Black-ish (2014 to 2022), along with other film-makers.
After agreeing on the themes they wanted to explore, Larson and co-producer Nicole Galovski combed through local newspapers and Instagram to find young people with inspiring growing-up stories.
At a virtual press event for Growing Up, Larson says she had a sudden realisation one day about how she was “living in shame about who I was”, and feeling “unlovable”.
The star, who won a Best Actress Oscar for the kidnapping drama Room (2015), says: “I was noticing I was presenting myself in the world by either shielding certain parts of myself or living in fear.”
And it occurred to her that if she was “feeling this way, other people must feel this way” – something that conversations with her friends and family confirmed.
This became the spark for her to create the series, the goal being to share and bond over this universal human experience.
“At the same time, it’s about celebrating and recognising that we’re way more similar than different,” adds Larson, who also appeared in the superhero ensemble film Avengers: Endgame (2019).
She says working on the project was “hugely transformative” and everyone became almost like “a little family”.
It set her on “this glorious path of meeting so many beautiful, wonderful young people, as well as our incredible directors”, says Larson, who is dating actor-director Elijah Allan-Blitz, 35.
“I’ve never had an experience where people felt as seen and transformed and connected to what it was that they were doing.
“I remember finishing this and going, ‘Even if no one ever sees this, I feel like there was a lot of healing that happened here, a lot of connecting’.”
Although the spotlight is on these young adults and their specific problems, the stories also capture the universal process of growing up – and the fact that it continues long after adolescence is officially over.
That is why the young people and the film-makers “realised how much we all had in common”, Larson explains.
“No one can escape the growing-up experience and we’re all still growing.”
She credits the subjects of the docuseries for sharing their stories as openly and vulnerably as they did.
“I just have so much love and gratitude for our incredible heroes, who had the courage to say things that I’m not sure I would have had the courage to say,” she says.
“And to do it in a way that brings so much love, so much joy, so much celebration to things that are painful but part of life.”
Co-producer and showrunner Galovski adds that the series is designed for parents and children to watch together and have a “really transformative experience” they can bond over.
“The coming-of-age experience is so universal: those things that we experienced for the first time and the confidence that we try to find to just be who we are in the world.
“And that hits everybody,” she says.
Growing Up premieres on Disney+ on Thursday.