"American Teen" wants to be like a 1980s John Hughes moviethe one-sheet all but screams this, replicating the poster for "The Breakfast Club"but there is one difference: this is a documentary. As such, one would think that the shopworn clichés of the classic coming-of-age movie would come toppling down in the light of featured subjects who aren't actors, but real people. This turns out not to be the case, and director Nanette Burstein (2002's "The Kid Stays in the Picture") not only seems to be okay with that, but frequently embraces it. Maybe, just maybe, the clichés of cinematic teendom are so rampant because they stem from truth.
In an attempt to capture the day-to-day triumphs and disappointments, joys and anxieties of a varied group of high schoolers, Burstein traveled to the predominately white and conservative middle-America town of Warsaw, Indiana, and followed four seniors for the duration of the academic year. Megan Krizmanich is the queen bee of the class, the popular homecoming royalty who also happens to be conniving and snotty to her dwindling clique of friends. Colin Clemens is the star basketball player and all-around nice guy on campus who is depending on a sports scholarship to help get him to college. Jake Tusing stands from the outside looking in; he's a shy, monotone-voiced guy with few friends, a quickly disinterested girlfriend, and a love for video games. Finally, Hannah Bailey is an arty, creative type who wants out of Warsaw and dreams of moving to California to study film.
All of the hallmarks of the typical teen film are here, from the basketball games, to the relationship dramas, to the parties, to the stresses of getting accepted into college, to the prom, and ultimately to graduation. While "American Teen" could have possibly been a penetrating, eye-opening look at what high school is really like, director Nanette Burstein doesn't dig as deep as she should have; in cutting the length down to 101 minutes, what she has really made is more of a Cliffs Notes vision of teen life, one that isn't all that different from an ordinary fiction films seen on the same topic. Truth be told, a lot appears to be missing from her four subjects' lives. Parents and families are minor players. Home life is only cursorily touched upon. School is mostly washed over with only a handful of classroom scenes, though one in which the students are being trained for job interviews hits a not very nostalgic note of one's own experiences doing the same thing. The prom sequence comes and goes so quickly that it barely serves as a footnote.
If "American Teen" isn't a particularly deep documentary, it is an entertaining one. With the right marketing, teenage audiences should flock to theaters to see itthat is, if they're not home watching the glossier "Laguna Beach" on MTV. The four central figures are fairly well-rounded, with Burstein's camera astutely observing their behavior without intruding upon them. Of them, Hannah is the one that stands out. A smart, if at times overly emotional, girl who fears she'll get stuck in Indiana and waste her life on a meaningless nine-to-five job, Hannah plays to her own drummer even as those around her don't always support her beliefs. When her mother passingly tells her she's not special, it stings with the authenticity of a loved one not thinking before they speak and not realizing the damage they're causing. Meanwhile, Jake is an easily relatable form of misfitnot so much an outcast as merely invisible to his peers. When he uncomfortably attends the homecoming dance and ends up leaving early, sans date, it's a subtle, true and poignant snapshot of what one experiences when they feel like they don't belong.
And then there's Megan, who has seemingly become popular for no apparent reason and who delights in backstabbing friends and acquaintances with nary an acknowledgment of what she's done. When her best friend, Ali, a bubbly, congenial Reese Witherspoon lookalike, finally tires of Megan's ways and drops her, the viewer feels like cheering. And, when Megan is accepted into her first-choice collegeNotre Dameall that the audience can do is silently nod. Of course Megan would get into Notre Dame; she's the kind of person who undeservedly has everything go her way. That Megan has suffered tragedyit is startlingly revealed midway through that her older mentally-challenged sister committed suicide two years priorand still goes about her days doing ugly things to others shows that she has a lot to learn before she finally grows up. Hopefully she'll one day realize the mistakes she's made.
"American Teen" trucks through events in an episodic fashion. Certain relationships between children and parents, teens and their friends, and various couples would have been more affecting had extra time been afforded for them to breathe, but what director Nanette Burstein has achieved nonetheless is in taking an unfiltered look at eighteen-year-olds on the verge of adulthood and grappling with what their futures hold. There is something wholly universal about this subject matter that strikes, again and again, rightfully familiar chords. Adults often talk about the good old days of being a teenager, and how they wish they could relive that time. "American Teen" knowingly reiterates, though, that it's not nearly as easy as those who've come out the other side seem to remember.