Director: Nanette Burstein
Screenwriter: Nanette Burstein
Producers: Jordan Roberts, Nanette Burstein, Eli Gonda, Chris Huddleson
SONY HD Cam
U.S.A., 2007, 95 min.
*American Teen intimately follows the lives of four teenagers in one small town in Indiana through their senior year of high school. Using cinema vérité footage, interviews, and animation, it presents a candid portrait of being 17 and all that goes with it. We see the insecurities, the cliques, the jealousies, the first loves and heartbreaks, the experimentation with sex and alcohol, the parental pressures, and the struggle to make profound decisions about the future.
Nanette Burstein returns to Sundance (On the Ropes won a Special Jury Prize at the 1999 Festival) with a film that is an incredible window into a time of development almost everyone can relate to. She filmed daily for 10 months, developing a remarkably close rapport with these students and their families. The kids open up in her presence and lay bare their lives. That exemplifies her incredible talent for storytelling and uncovering the many layers of truth in her subjects, creating a film that is astonishing from shooting to editing.
In American Teen, the stories coalesce into a narrative so engrossing that it resembles fiction more than documentary. The end result is a film that goes beyond the stereotypes of high school--the nerd and the jock, the homecoming queen and the arty misfit--to capture the complexity of young people trying to make their way into adulthood.
*Summary by John Cooper, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
Wow, this is a fantastic documentary that shed some new light on an oft-portrayed subject, the life of an American teenager. The creatively titled American Teen chooses four seniors from an Indiana high school and follows them around for their last year of high school, capturing all the drama in their lives and the friends who pass in and out. I feel like I have seen a bit of this before, but this felt much more realistic than previous depictions of high school. This documentary didn’t focus on extremities, solely on the popular clique or the depressed losers club. These are normal 2006-era kids with the natural high school problems that reminded me so much of the Midwest high school I attended a decade ago, it was scary. American Teen also eschews the no-frills hard-hitting documentary style for something a lot more fun. Sometimes the stories are enhanced with animation sequences and modern music montages. Some might see this as artificial and distracting, but I thought it enhanced a film that might be getting too bogged down with its own seriousness. It never veers too far into scripted “reality” fare like The Hills, though some critics have questioned the filmmakers’ ability to be present at all major phone calls and events in these 4 kids’ lives. However the filmmakers managed it, the end result is an enlightening look, not into the lives of celebrity youth or inner-city education, but into the lives of Caucasian kids who were raised in middle to upper-middle class families in the Midwest. Since the majority of Americans were raised in this environment, I think filmmakers feel they need not explore it. Well pardon my views, but it is nice to see a portrayal of high school that is realistic and familiar.
American Teen follows 4 seniors who initially seem stereotyped into Breakfast Club-like models. There is Meghan ‘the blonde popular girl,’ Colin ‘the athlete,’ Hannah ‘the independent artiste,’ and Jake ‘the nerd.’ As the story moves forward, it becomes clear that all really have the same problems no matter ho removed they feel from each other in the story. I know that seems like a really obvious and pat conclusion, but I can’t quite put into words how moving and insightful the road to graduation it portrayed here. Every high school kid should see this, so they know that their not the only ones in the world that are feeling the pain and abandonment of high school. In fact, everyone is. Does that maybe tread on individuality if one sees one’s problems as the same as everyone else’s? Too much philosophy, another time, back to the film.
Meghan is a fascinating character. She reminds me of all the popular, blonde, cheerleader-ish type girls in my high school, and there are times when she is clearly the ‘villain’ of the film. She is mean, self-centered, and arrogant, but there are moments when we see her try to overcome that. Early on, Meghan is interested in this guy and a bit angry that he is dating another girl, Erica. When Erica sends a topless picture of herself to the guy, Meghan gets a hold of the picture and helps spread it around school. One night, when Meghan is having a sleepover, she and her friends leave an awful message on Erica’s phone, saying she has an awful body and she’s a slut, and that they hope she doesn’t kill herself. Granted, this is very normal high school girl behavior, but man, it looks awful, and there isn’t a one of us that hasn’t been either victim or an instigator of similar phone calls in high school. She may be a bit of a bitch, yet the most emotional moment in the entire film is when Meghan gets her acceptance letter to Notre Dame (her family has a long legacy there and the familial pressure to get in was enormous), and she bursts into tears. I love the little detail of the Notre Dame package being a big envelope. Because of that big envelope, everyone in the theater knew that she was accepted a split-second before Meghan did. Suddenly, the whole audience is right there with her, remembering the horrid days of waiting on acceptance letters and judging the size of the envelope.
But Meghan goes back to being mean and spiteful, and the audience starts to see her as a villain again. That is, until a revelation about her Down-syndrome sister, Sarah, who committed suicide a couple years ago, changes the way we have been looking at Meghan. Her behavior starts to look like her lashing out, trying to process the death of her sister. What fun to be involved with such a complicated character! The audience loathes her, loves her, sympathizes with her, and finally, has to make up their own mind about whether Meghan is a decent person or not. This is what documentaries are for, to explore complexity in a real human being, complexity that can only be imitated in fiction film. If Meghan, a simple Midwest girl can contain such multitudes, then it is easy to look at oneself and appreciate the complexity of a perfectly normal, flawed, un-famous, person.
Colin is a basketball player, and at first seems to be the typical preternaturally gifted, popular type who seems to float through life. Once we start to see more of his story, his situation becomes the most precarious of them all. His family is not wealthy and he can’t afford college without a basketball scholarship. So, his options are either play well enough in his senior year, or he’ll have to join the army. His year starts off horribly, as he feels the pressure to show off to the scouts so he hogs the ball and forgets his teammates. There are a few moments in the locker room where Colin has breakdowns, the stress rolling off him in waves. Fortunately, he does succeed in getting a scholarship so he doesn’t have to go overseas, but that final basketball sequence is my one problem with the film. That final game comes down to him making a final basket, set to pounding sports music and shot in slo-mo. This was too much artifice. I understand that we are trying to pump up the story, make it big, but there is no need to make it Hoosiers. The film balances on a tricky line between reality and hyper-reality, and this is one of the few moments that it tips into manipulation.
Hannah is wonderful, a Juno-like teen who is pretty in a non-made-up way, individualistic, and funny. Of course, in high school, these kinds of girls are the outcasts. She is passionate and wonderful, and it is so awful to see how her heart keeps getting broken. The guys at her school just can’t handle her. When she attracts the eye of a popular guy, Mitch (who runs in the same crowd as Colin and Meghan), you can see trouble lurking around the corner. When they are alone, they have a blast, but once Meghan starts teasing Mitch about dating a girl who isn’t popular, Mitch wusses out and breaks up with Hannah by text. Ahhh, text messaging, another option for guys to avoid confrontation. After the film, in the Q&A, Mitch was there and was asked about how he could have broken up with Hannah by text. The poor guy looked ridiculously embarrassed. It is hard to account for childish things you did before leaving your small little high school world.
Hannah is the most passionate and outspoken of the 4 teenagers and any time the camera just lets her ramble on about her life goals or what she is feeling is wonderful. She gives a great little speech about how all she really wants is to be remembered, and that moving to California can help her achieve that dream. A state that elects Schwarzenegger, even though she hates him, can give her a chance. Hannah’s mother down not support her and it is so hard to see a real mother tell her daughter that she isn’t special and should stay in Indiana. When Hannah finally leaves town after graduation, it is liberating to see her get out from the yoke of people who don’t appreciate her. Hannah’s story is the only one that even mentions sex, though in a very small throw-away moment. This surprised me. High school is all hormones and the opposite sex, yet there is nearly no talk of sex among the four. Listening to the Q&A afterwards, I wonder if, like drug use, some of the sex in the stories was edited out to protect the teenagers. If so, bravo.
Jake was the character I couldn’t quite get into. Not sure why, maybe he hit a little to close to home. He is always looking for a girlfriend, and it is frustrating to see how he fails in this. Sometimes, he does the right things, romantic notions that win a girl over. Then we see him being sullen and mopey around the girls, refusing to dance with them, being needy, and we just want to slap him upside the head! You can’t be romantic towards a girl, giving her the idea that this is who you are, then actually be a sad sack needy nerd every time you are around her! It is nice to see him branch out a little when visiting his brother in college and by the end it looks like he has found a girl from another school who understands his moods. My favorite parts of Jake’s story were the animiation bits. Each of the four characters has an animation sequence, visualizing their dreams or their fears. Jake’s love of video games results in a hilarious CG sequence of Jake as a video game prince sweeping a princess off her feet and riding off into the sunset. All the animation sequences are wonderful and break up the documentary format a bit, and it is a wonderful way to keep the film flowing and fun.
American Teen is a wonderful study of normal kids in high school. I wouldn’t say that there is anything here that is ground-breakingly new, but these characters are so real and relatable, that the film isn’t something you watch, its something you participate in. As I watched, I couldn’t help remembering my embarrassing or triumphant moments in high school, comparing how I behaved to the way the teenagers in Indiana behaved. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Engage your memories and principles, offering a different opinion or a fresh viewpoint for your consideration? American Teen is an important film, but a fun and amusing one as well. This is a must-see for anyone who ever went to high school and thought they were alone.