Teen trajectory targeted

American Teen
United States, 2008

Directed By: Nanette Burstein
Written By: Nanette Burstein
Starring: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing
Running Time: 95 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking-all involving teens
4 out of 5 stars

Watching soul-crushing films is rough – writing about them is even worse. And there are a lot of bad films out there (I know, shocking). But, as a film critic, when you have the chance to champion a wonderful, cinematic underdog – a film your readers have likely never heard of and will likely never purchase tickets for – it easily makes up for the ten Martin Lawrence vehicles that preceded it. American Teen is one of those films, a documentary full of charm and wit and grace that smoothly functions on multiple levels – as entertainment, as human drama, as social commentary – and is guaranteed to resonate with anyone who’s put foot inside an American high school.

The film focuses on five teenagers beginning their senior year at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana. The introduction to each teen feels like something out of Not Another Teen Movie: we’re given The Jock, The Heartthrob, The Geek, The Princess, and The Rebel, and each of them is as clichéd as the last 2 1/2 decades of teen films have built them up to be (the marketing department even brazenly copied The Breakfast Club’s iconic one-sheet). This is a conscious decision by director Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture), who purposefully builds up stereotypes so she can deftly demolish them later in the film.

As the teens go through the expected motions of senior life – relationships, gossip, family pressures, college applications, prom, the Big Game – they open up like Russian nesting dolls, each stereotypical high school situation revealing more depth and nuance to them than previously expected. By the end of the film, each has transitioned from cliché to flesh ‘n blood human, and characters you thought irredeemable (such as popular diva Megan) display surprising vulnerability.

The film’s success in developing character owes as much, if not more, to Burstein’s consummate skill as a storyteller as it does to the kids themselves. She possesses an instinctive ability to construct narrative within the restrictive confines of the documentary form, and the result is on par with the great docs of recent memory (including Seth Gordon’s King of Kong and Chris Smith’s American Movie).

Although numerous sequences have been staged and reenacted after the fact (including a painful breakup by text message), Burstein effortlessly weaves these somewhat artificial beats around the genuine in-the-moment ones, never once giving the audience pause to question the veracity of what they are seeing. Whereas teen ‘reality’ programming such as The Hills employs a legion of Big Brother-like scripters, controlling hookups and breakups with Machiavellian ease (you can practically hear the producers off screen saying, “No, no, break up with him this way…”), Burstein never jeopardizes the integrity of her film. She is, quite frankly, a brilliant documentarian.

The innate attraction to a film such as this is vicariously reliving the triumphs and sorrows of our own youth through the characters on screen. Even the marketing department grasped this, querying, “Who were you?” in the film’s theatrical trailer. I was personally taken aback to hear Hannah Bailey (the ‘rebel’), the undeniable centerpiece of the film, repeating things suspiciously similar to my own thoughts and desires. And not only her opinions mirror my own, but also the trajectory of her life. Pulling up roots for college, she tracks halfway across the country to San Francisco, completely on her own, with family over 2000 miles away. When I left for college, I left my parents nearly 8000 miles away on another continent, experiencing the same fears of separation and thrills of independence that Hailey does. Not only that but she also aspires to filmmaking, a profession I’ve dreamt of since I was 19. With such striking parallels, I was completely won over by her, and while others may not relate as strongly as I did to the film, because Burstein profiles such a wide range of personalities, even the most stubborn of viewers will be unable to resist at least one of the teens.

Personal experiences aside, American Teen is also a telling snapshot of teenage life in small-town America. Although not surprising, it’s nonetheless fascinating to see how technology has become an inextricable part of the high school experience. When I was growing up, computers existed to play Oregon Trail; virtual dysentery was the worst thing that could happen. Now computers and the internet are used to virally propagate gossip and destroy reputations, as in one devastating sequence where a girl’s photographic self-portrait (of the risqué variety) is spread around the school lightning-quick by email and cellphone. The ‘what’ of teenage life may not have changed much, but the ‘how’ certainly has.

American Teen is a cinematic time capsule, a window into teenage life at the turn of the millennia that will be referenced for years to come. That it also functions as both splendid entertainment and compelling drama is icing on the cake. This is one of the finest documentaries of the year and one that I am happy to champion. See it, support it, and fall in love with it.

About the author:

Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for MovieZeal.com. Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.