American Teen

Movie Review by Samuel Taradash

Starring: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Jake Tusing
Director: Nanette Burstein

Nanette Burstein’s documentary AMERICAN TEEN was filmed over the course of 10 months in the small midwestern town of Warsaw, Indiana. Burstein has tried to capture life for normal teenagers in Warsaw during the senior year of five students: a jock, a geek, a princess, a heartthrob and a rebel. Inspired by seminal teen film THE BREAKFAST CLUB, the film offers an illuminating, but limited, glimpse into the lives of these kids from different social circles.

The community of Warsaw has only one high school, and was chosen partially because it presented a “kind of inescapable social pressure cooker.” These kids were already living in a fish bowl before the cameras arrived, and they all knew it. Each one of them talked often about the pressures they felt as they entered their final year of school. Basketball star Colin worried about winning a scholarship to university, band geek Jake obsessed about finding and keeping a girlfriend. Wealthy and popular, Megan divided her anxieties between getting into Notre Dame and keeping control of her social clique. Only handsome Mitch didn’t seem to worry about much at all to start, while independent Hannah struggled to express herself in a conservative society.

It’s hard not to identify with the kids because they are all presented sympathetically. Each is allowed a chance to express their hopes and fears and they are, with one exception, generally inoffensive. Their successes are sweet, and their failures sad. But there is very little darkness in their world. There are no troubles with alcohol, drugs, sex or racism, and parties are subdued, safe affairs. All the conflicts and threats feel slightly cushioned. No matter how stressed these teens may be, none of their problems seem that pressing. Also, we don’t see much of their families, which feels like a greater loss when we catch a glimpses of them. The absent mother with manic-depression, the distant surgeon, the former athlete turned Elvis impersonator, all of them offer tantalizing insights on these teens, but they aren’t followed through.

The director generally takes a fly-on-the-wall perspective, except for the solo interviews and the animated expressions of their fantasies. The animated sequences are done in different styles for each teen, and offer clever graphic representations of their inner lives. The interviews are more problematic. For example, when one girl faces the camera to talk about the rather cruel public humiliation she faces, it’s hard not to think she’s reading a script. Their interviews evoke “reality TV” programs, but these are children who have never known a world without confessionals presented as entertainment. Consequently, when a camera is pointed at them, they talk like TV people because that’s what they know.

It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect great depth or insight from teenagers, but the adult director could have done more to show what forces shaped these kids. This film is light, almost fluffy, but it is also charming, entertaining and enjoyable, not something generally expected from American teenagers.

4 out of 6 stars

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