(2008)3.5Cammila CollarIn an age when our taste for "real-life" footage has been tainted by the scripted and staged drama of reality TV, American Teen finds a new and compelling approach to the documentary format. Following a group of five seniors over the course of their final year of high school in the small town of Warsaw, IN, director Nanette Burstein's film doesn't lie to the viewer -- it's not a pared-down, unbiased doc and it doesn't try to be. The movie never adopts the pretense of total objectivity, but instead operates from the premise that, when all the editing and production is said and done, the lives of real teenagers can be indistinguishable from a teen movie -- hence the promotional campaign depicting the film's five protagonists as the cast of the Breakfast Club.
While she never holds back in the way she selects and edits her footage of the kids to further each one's storyline, Burstein also never pulls anything out of thin air. Liberties are taken unapologetically to help tie together that Brat-Packish throughline -- with reaction shots that nobody can say for certain came from the scene they appear in, and animated sequences inserted to illustrate the students' feelings, flashbacks, and fantasies -- but the words and events that make up the spine of the story are genuine and unmistakable. From the damaging words uttered by callous, if well-intentioned parents to the plainly sincere declarations made by these creative, terrified, heart-broken, and inspired kids, the whole idea of American Teen is that the truths that make these stories so compelling are already there.
Artistic iconoclast Hannah beats as the heart of that compelling narrative, as she struggles with depression and loneliness -- as well as with the pain of being terminally unsatisfied with how little the small town has to offer her. She's vivacious and disarming at her highest and lowest turns, and you can't help wanting desperately to see her succeed and grow -- to shrug off the hurts inflicted by stupid, uncaring boys (one of whom appears to be featured prominently in the film solely because of his involvement with her) and the baggage of an unmanageably bipolar mom who's left her in the care of her grandmother and sometimes dad.
Even the far less sympathetic teens that the film follows are depicted with compassion. Rich, popular, and powerful valedictorian Megan engages in downright mean and deplorable behavior on camera -- but Burstein still endeavors to provide insight into the pain and pressure that makes villains out of otherwise bright, young people. Megan's portrayal in American Teen also goes to the film's overall approach to character and story editing. At one point, she and a group of rude, blond, possibly inebriated friends spend a late night leaving viciously hurtful messages on a fellow student's voice mail -- finding every hateful avenue to call the girl a whore. There's enough direct footage to make it clear that Megan's hate-message party was born out of jealousy, as a retaliation for the victim hooking up with Megan's best friend, Geoff. Again and again, the film implies that Megan harbors feelings for Geoff, but is far too pompous and insecure to admit it -- opting instead to issue him possessive orders, most of which he ignores ("Hold my hand!"), and to lash out brutally at other girls who show interest in him.
The point in this subplot where story editing might clash with reality is obvious, because for all we know, Megan and Geoff may have had some more-than-friends understanding behind the scenes that would make her jealousy less irrational. But this gray area exemplifies just how well the film's approach to reality vs. cinematic license works, because even if the details were skimmed over, it's hard to think of damn near anything that could justify this kind of sociopathic behavior. Later, Megan's actions only help to make the case when she spray-paints "fag" on a fellow student's house, and her dad chastises her merely for getting caught.
Indeed, there's some sad and infuriating parental behavior in American Teen, from basketball player Colin's dad finding what seems like moral fault with him for failing to perform a scholarship-worthy number of rebounds to Hannah's grandmother and dad admonishing her not to follow her dream to San Francisco in a series of conversations that go from discouraging to demoralizing (including but by no means limited to a castigation from grandma that includes the phrase "You are not special."). As well-intentioned as it would be to give these parents the benefit of the doubt, they shine a harsh light on the tragic passing down of fear and hate that happens between parents and kids every day. It makes you pull for Hannah, and for all (or at least most) of the kids even harder, hoping they each find the tools to believe that their world doesn't have to end at this school, or in this town.
In this biting cinéma vérité, director Nanette Burstein follows a group of five Indiana high-school seniors as they navigate the social mazes of adolescence, prepare for graduation, and generally deal with the often surprising and strange situations that arise simply from being 17. Incorporating intimate footage, interviews, and animation, Burstein reveals all the gritty details about life as a teenager in Midwestern America, from drugs, alcohol, and depression to cliques, first love, and heartbreak.