Reviews

Nanette Burstein

USA, 2008

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 01 May 2008

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2008 Independent Film Festival of Boston

With its Breakfast Club-aping poster art and a bit of opening narration reminiscent of Heathers (Or Clueless. Or Mean Girls.), director Nanette Burstein’s documentary American Teen is liable to put critics and audience members on guard against teen flick cliché. The film follows a handful of high schoolers from the tight-knit, whitebread town of Warsaw, Indiana through their senior year, including Colin, the athlete chasing a basketball scholarship; Jake, the shy member of marching band chasing a date to the prom; Megan, the queen bee who cloaks her own vulnerability in cruel pranks; and Hannah, the artistic square peg who dreams of ditching the Hoosier State for good. In other words, juicy, intersecting tales of adolescent drama are afoot. Is this an example of an illuminating new documentary or just John Hughes with an indie makeover?

Well, firstly, those of us who remember high school will remember that John Hughes didn’t have it entirely wrong. (And those of us who’ve managed to forget will remember – quickly – with the help of American Teen.) And secondly, while American Teen does not hesitate to plunge into the little dramas that make up a day at Warsaw Community High School, from humiliating pictures spread via email to a possibly doomed cross-clique romance, it wisely focuses most strongly on the most terrifying and exhilarating question of senior year: what happens next?

Burstein realizes, as the teenagers do, that their first steps as adults may well be among the most defining that they ever take. And while the film stays away from the parents-just-don’t-understand simplifications of The Breakfast Club (I’m thinking specifically of a sad-eyed Ally Sheedy concluding that when you grow up, your heart dies.), the adults are not always shining role models for success, nor pillars of unconditional support. In one of the film’s most gasp-inducing moments, Hannah’s mother tries to talk her out of her dream of attending college in California, growing increasingly frustrated and finally blurting: “You are not special!” It’s rarely stated so plainly as it is here, but adults will nevertheless recognize that particular barb as neatly encompassing one of the unspoken assurances that narrows too many lives. Burnstein’s ability to tease out conversations and scenes that crystallize the drive of all of the major players to overcome that kind of thinking, as well as those lows of bleak self-doubt that are so much a part of high school, makes American Teen engaging.

Burstein does make some missteps: one of the most hotly-debated aspects of the film will surely be the animated sequences that are interspersed throughout the feature, each one intended to depict the inner life of one her subjects. The sequences are most often played for laughs (one notable exception being the visualization of one of the student’s battle with severe anxiety and depression), and sometimes have a flippant tone that contrasts too strongly with the compassionate nature of the rest of the film. These bits feel unnecessary; more is revealed through the twitches, silences, and smiles of high school than in an animated sequence that places Jake in his favorite videogame or depicts Megan levitating through the gates of Notre Dame. Consider the interview when Hannah discusses her desire to become a filmmaker and be remembered after her death. It works without any post-production pyrotechnics: the hope and determination that lights her face is more than enough.

Beyond the question of whether the animated sequences are appropriate, American Teen faces scrutiny over the thornier issue of authenticity. There is one instance in the feature – and only one, if I remember correctly – in which one of the teenagers lunges forward and the microphone pack on her back is visible. It’s a little startling, raising that question that often nags documentaries (and prominently featured in the mildly contentious Q&A with Burstein that followed this film’s screening at the IFFB): how much of a factor is that camera crew? How do teenagers, knowing that their lives are a motion picture, alter their behavior? That’s hard to say, but on the whole, the aspirations and insecurities of these kids, and the potential for them to transcend or succumb to the small town pressures that formed them, felt real enough, and perilous enough, to me.

High school is all about posturing, and attempting to close the gap between who you want to be and who you are. So I have no doubt that the kids were showing off for the cameras – or each other – at times. But at its best American Teen catches honest moments that aren’t so much about being an American or a teen, but about finding – and better still, fighting for – oneself, a battle that will rage on long after the last diploma is handed out.

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