'American Teen' - The Kids Are Alright


From the Seattle International Film Festival:

As a documentary trailing four teens over a 10-month span of their senior year in Warsaw, Indiana, Nanette Burnstein’s American Teen feels handled. The narration points out that Warsaw is a predominately conservative, Christian community, though from the viewer’s perspective it’s somehow stripped of almost all signs of red-blooded values or religion. You wouldn’t know you were in the Midwest if you weren’t told. Two of the more socially unconnected students repeatedly point out their desire to get the hell out of Warsaw, but you never find out what’s so bad about Warsaw. The high school and the four, all white teens (and a plus one, evidently made a fixture of the film after he became a love interest of a participant) were chosen by the director for their compelling stories. They fall into classic archetypes – geek, rebel, jock, and princess. The Breakfast Club parallels should be self-evident, but any smart marketer would no doubt demand that it be circled with multicolored highlighters. The most recent one-sheet for American Teen makes this point.

What is learned about Warsaw and its teens comes within the context of their goals and priorities for senior year. Jake, the pimpled band nerd, is singularly focused on finding a girlfriend. Student council leader and overall Queen Bee, Megan – who has said after the film’s release that she “really was a bitch,” needs to be accepted into Notre Dame to follow family tradition. Basketball star Colin shoulders the burden of making big shots for his team, as the only way he’ll make it into state college is through a scholarship. Hannah, an aspiring filmmaker that Burnstein has obviously taken a rooting interest in, sees no future in Midwest living, and intends to dash to California at the earliest possible opportunity.

We see their clique navigation, dating failures, and missteps. The Warsaw teens throw small parties with some drinking, but no drug use. At the screening of the film for SIFF, Burnstein was asked if that was by design or coincidence; she admitted that it was intentionally omitted, in part because she felt a sense of loyalty to her subjects and an obligation to keep them out of trouble, but also because she felt everything that she and her crew witnessed was on par with what she experienced in her own high school years. There are allusions to sex, though not to any anecdotal evidence of early dropouts, pregnancies, abuse, or serious financial hardships among the four central teens and their circle of friends. In the worst case, one acts on rage stemming from a family suicide years earlier, but as a whole, most obstacles are ordinary. Their onscreen dilemmas are timeless, and part and parcel with the high school experience – parental expectations. breakups, ostracism, rage, and shame.

Not to imply that this is a disingenuous Middle America take on The Hills – this is their senior year, more or less, as it happened. The question is not whether elements of American Teen have been treated, but rather what influence the filmmaker’s presence had on each story, and which moments documented over close to a year’s time were left on the cutting room floor.

What is the intended audience for American Teen? The PG-13 rating lends to the idea of a documentary, or non-fiction film about young adults, for young adults. What it lacks in hard-edgedness is compensated for by inspirational material. Early on the central characters were asked to provide a monologue, spoken over four animated sequences (another unfortunate, detracting factor), outlining their immediate and post-high school aspirations. By graduation, they all hit their goals or are within spitting distance of achieving the plans they had laid out. Everyone feels good. You can liken it to Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.

Not every high school story needs to be of a jarring, scared straight variety, and in watching the film, teens, and maybe even their parents can walk away with the feeling that things aren’t so bad out there. That may be an accurate reflection of their own situation. It might not. As a documentary in the traditional sense, American Teen is not fully fleshed out. But, whether steered there from inception or in the editing room, it is a family-accessible crowd pleaser, and will succeed as such.

Scheduled release: July 25, 2008. Trailer

Posted by Ted Zee on June 04th 2008 | Home Page | 2 Comments Subscribe to this site's feed

2 Responses

  1. Nick Plowman Says:

    Cannot wait to see this, I bet it is just my kind of doc. Particularly resonant for people my age as well.

  2. My So Called Documentary: ‘American Teen’ Review » Big Screen Little Screen Says:

    […] American Teen opens this weekend. My June 4th review. […]

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