American Teen

The documentary American Teen takes a snapshot of the lives of adolescents in the flyover states, but the results feels somehow photoshopped.

Director Nanette Burstein (who waded through Robert Evan's bullshit for The Kid Stays in the Picture) spent ten months filming at a school in Warsaw, Indiana, a town we are told is “mostly white, mostly Christian and mostly Republican”. The result of her experiment was over 1,000 hours of footage which the filmmaker has condensed down into a snapshot of life as it is lived by the young in Middle America. As the school year starts, Burstein introduces her subjects, kids that could have been plucked out of any 1980s John Hughes movie: The Rebel, The Queen Bee, The Sporty Guy, The Nerd and the Heartthrob. Having established them as snug fits for stereotype, Burstein then looks to explore their lives in detail, analysing their relationships with one another, their families and the school.

The central character, arty rock-chick Hannah Bailey, likes music and movies and feels like a misfit in the conservative town. She dreams of escaping to San Francisco after graduation and becoming a filmmaker. Her parents warn her about the dangers of life for a young girl alone in the big city. “It’s my life,” she tells them, but there is a quiver in her voice. Earlier, Hannah had missed weeks of school after he boyfriend dumped her, unable to face the world she is so desperate to explore.

Her opposite number, blonde and pretty Prom Queen Megan Krizmanich, is the daughter of a wealthy family and the most popular student in the school. She drives a swanky car, has dozens of twittering friends and a mean streak a mile wide. Even the teachers are a little bit afraid of her. Megan dreams of following her father to Notre Dame University, but secretly fears she is not smart enough. As a distraction, she undertakes a campaign of social exclusion against anyone that comes into her orbit; a bitchy reign of terror that extends to petty social crimes like vandalism and nuisance phone calls. From the first moment we meet Megan, we are awaiting her comeuppance.

Colin Clemens, the sporty guy, is a well-liked, good natured basketball player who knows his best chance of getting a college scholarship derives from his athletic abilities. The alternatives, his father tells him repeatedly, are enlisting in the army or following in his footsteps as an Elvis impersonator on the hotel lounge circuit. Colin doesn’t care much for either option, but as the year continues the pressure proves too much for him and his form on the court dips.

The nerd, Jake Tusing, only breaks a sweat on his XBox. Jake has a bedroom full of taxidermy and a brain that is even less lively. A self-proclaimed introvert, Jake is desperate to find a girlfriend, but is restrained by his shyness, his braces and a spectacular spray of acne across his cheeks. Painfully awkward and grinding with self-consciousness, his silver tongue is in need of a polish. “I like you because you suck at life…like me”, he tells one prospective girlfriend, on a first date. She looks at him like he has five eyes. The heartthrob, Mitch Reinholt, has no such problems. A good-looking, sporty All-American teenager, white-bread Mitch comes into the story when - in a move that cuts across the school’s rigid social stratification - he starts dating kooky Hannah. Rather than hang out in Megan’s house with all the other popular kids, Hannah dresses Mitch in a green dragon costume and has him roll around on the grass while she films him. The love affair doesn’t last.

Essentially a vérité take on The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls, American Teen is a slickly produced documentary filled with incident and insight, some of which feels real and some of which feels scripted. Burstein spent most of her American publicity tour defending the film’s authenticity but still that nagging sensation that you are watching something pre-arranged never quite dispels. Given unlimited access to their lives, their computers and mobile phones, the ease with which events collide points towards the possibility of directorial guidance. If it's all true, it is fascinating. If it is not, it is an egregious cheat.

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