American Teen

James Rexroad/Paramount Vantage
Nanette Burstein/United States 2008

Here’s a new twist on the tired teen movie narrative – tell it with real teenagers.

Well, it works for Nanette Burnstein. Her documentary film American Teen tracks the lives of a few middle-American high-school students as they negotiate their senior year, that culturally-defined liminal space between school years and the so-called real world, between youth and adulthood. All of the characters are there: the jock, the princess, the heartthrob, the geek and the rebel. They all want one thing – to make it through the next year so they can go out and be who they want to be, where they want to be. Finally.

Despite oodles of Hollywood product to the contrary, this oh-so-typical American coming-of-age storyline actually proves more interesting when real young people comprise it. And not in the way that reality television gets more interesting when “real” people populate it. The respective, sometimes intertwined stories of Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing and Hannah Bailey are moving precisely because they are not polished, perfect, and packaged for your enjoyment. Rather, Burnstein weaves the real-life elements of teendom appropriated by movies like American Pie, She’s All That, Orange County, Mean Girls, and all John Hughes films into a pretty damn entertaining portrait of what it’s really like for certain kinds of kids to grow up in America.

It’s boring, for one thing. Hannah, “the rebel,” cannot wait to trade out small-town Indiana for life in the big city. “Princess” Megan and her friends play drunken games of spin the bottle and harass their peers to liven up the wee hours of long weekend nights. The “geek” Jake plays video games for hours on end, when he’s not trying to figure out how to make girls like him.

Young life is hard, too, even in a place “with nothing to do.” The “jock” Colin frets and sweats his way through his final high-school basketball season trying to earn a college sports scholarship, since his parents can’t afford to send him otherwise. Megan cracks under the pressure she feels her parents put on her to gain admittance to Notre Dame, where “all of my brothers and sisters have gone.” Popular “heartthrob” Mitch goes head-to-head with peer pressure when he starts dating Hannah, whom everyone considers weird.

Mired in Hollywood glitter, these issues seem trite and trivial. Superbad was a healthy step away from the glossed-over trend in films about American youth, but American Teen strips away the veneer and reminds us that first loves, first heartbreaks, peer pressure, athletic achievement, college admissions, clique wars and yes, even prom dates matter in a very real way to American teens. To drive this point even further, Burnstein uses clever animation sequences to give substance to the teens’ innermost thoughts and desires.

So sincere are Burnstein’s subjects that their stereotypical characterizations, which seem too forced and contrived at first, end up feeling absolutely essential to their stories. If nothing else, the film gives dimension to those stereotypes. Maybe we didn’t know everything about those people in the other groups in high school, after all.

In the end, this documentary does what all documentaries (some would argue all films) are meant to do – it sparks thought and reflection. Whether or not you went to high school in Indiana (I actually did), I’d bet there is something in this film that will resonate powerfully. You may leave the theater as I did – joyful for the memory of high school, and for the fact that it’s behind you, or uplifted by the realization that you can make it through and that there is more, much different life on the other side.

American Teen is everything that teen movies are supposed to be simply by being everything they are not.

As surprising as it may be, Burnstein isn’t the first documentary filmmaker to enter the hallways of an Indiana high school with her cameras rolling – that credit actually goes to renowned television journalist and documentarian Peter Davis, who produced the teen documentary Seventeen in Muncie, Indiana as part of his six-part Middletown series for PBS in 1982. Burnstein’s result differs quite drastically from Davis’ Seventeen, which he actually chose to withdraw from the series after it sparked quite a bit of controversy over depictions of teen drug use, sex and pseudo-hate crimes.

© 2008 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  1. A silver-medalist from Indiana like Lydia should know better than to attribute “Seventeen” to Peter Davis. Davis was the executive producer of the Middletown Series, and made one of the films in that series. He did not make “Seventeen” and the filmmakers, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines, didn’t even let him meet the people they were filming.

    Once it was clear that only “Seventeen” was attracting attention, Davis attempted to align himself with the film, to usually disastrous results. Read a few reviews, Lydia, and you’ll see that Davis is rarely if ever mentioned.

    And “pseudo hate-crimes?” What’s so pseudo about burning a cross on someone’s lawn — even a small one?

    I’d expect better and more accurate work from such an esteemed blog. Uh huh.

    Another Munsonian.

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