High school senior Hannah Bailey in American Teen
In 2005, filmmaker Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) filmed the lives of five Warsaw Indiana High School seniors over the course of ten months. She then narrowed down 1000 hours of footage and the result is American Teen, a documentary that traces every up and every down experienced by her subjects during a key year in their lives. Her stated goal was to explore the themes of teen movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club as they apply to real teenagers. Burstein succeeds, but like the fiction films it was inspired by, the documentary tends to be more entertaining than illuminating.
The extent to which you engage with American Teen will probably depend on how much you identify with or root for one of the characters. There is Megan the Princess, Colin the Jock, Jake the Geek, Mitch the Heartthrob and Hannah the Rebel. My favorites were Hannah and Jake. Hannah isn’t just your typical sullen teen, she’s genuinely constricted by her conservative surroundings. She’s a painter and a musician with dreams of becoming a filmmaker who looks around and sees few opportunities for such things. Also, coming from a poorer side of town, she doesn’t fit in with the popular rich kids.
Jake sticks out right away as the familiar geek type. Cursed with acne, he plays in the marching band and seems to relate bets to his video games. The great thing about him is that, even though he’s shy and doesn’t have a lot of social self-confidence, he tries. He’s eager to have a girlfriend and he puts himself out there with some success. To the extent he often fails comes as much from awkward social skills as anything else.
Less relatable and more difficult to root for (for me) were Colin and Mitch. Colin is the basketball star who strains under the pressure of needing a scholarship for college. Mitch is the one all the girls have a crush on. He’s a nice kid, but a bit of a cipher and seemingly only included for the role he plays to one or two of the other teens.
The villain of the piece is Megan. She’s the rich girl prom queen who bullies her friends and acts like everything that happens, happens to her personally. She’s softened a bit by her desperation to please her father by getting into Notre Dame, but she’s hard to warm up to and I don’t think we’re meant to.
Ultimately, all of the kids are more layered than their stereotypes suggest and that’s the primary revelation offered by American Teen. Of course, this will not come as a shock to anyone who has survived the experience. Luckily, what it lacks in discovery it makes up for in humor and drama. These are simply compelling and amusing stories. It’s also fascinating to go back to high school and see it again through the eyes of kids who are in the middle of it. What’s most surprising is how little has changed. Take away the Internet and cell phones and it could be high school 20 years ago.
There’s a very real question whether drama is enough to justify this documentary and indeed some have already questioned whether the teens were being exploited. Certainly it was a difficult experience, but Burstein’s motives don’t feel cynical enough to say she was simply taking advantage of these kids. Besides, they all seemed to emerge from the experience no worse for wear and perhaps a little more reflective on their lives than they would ordinarily have been.
Drama aside, watching the kids come into their own and seeing how they turned out is the payoff offered by the documentary. In retrospect, even Megan doesn’t seem so bad when you consider she was captured at a single moment in time. You’re given just enough hope that she has changed and grown like everyone else.
Beyond entertainment and nostalgia for adults, hopefully American Teen will have some important lessons for kids who are enduring their own high school tortures. If nothing else, perhaps it will provide a welcome light at the end of the tunnel.
American Teen. USA 2008. Written and directed by Nanette Burstein. Cinematography by Robert Hanna, Wolfgang Held and Laela Kilbourn. Edited by Nanette Burstein, Tom Haneke and Mary Manhardt. Starring Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Mitch Reinholt, Megan Krizmanich and Jake Tusing. 1 hour 40 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking–all involving teens. 3.5 stars (out of 5)