American Teen

In her coverage of Full Frame for Green Cine, the cinetrix succinctly summarizes the buzz surrounding Nanette Burstein’s American Teen (IMDB), a documentary following a group of Warsaw, Indiana, high school students over the course of their senior years: it’s entertaining and guaranteed to find an audience, but in a sense, perhaps due to its pop sensibility, it also seemed like an odd fit for Full Frame. Burstein’s film, which breezily mixes in animated fantasy sequences, voice-overs, and talking-heads sequences, follows four high schoolers who could have been pulled from a John Hughes film, a jock, a nerd, an art school misfit, and a prom queen. And while I found myself compelled by the film’s individual stories, I did have some reservations about what the film seemed to be telling us about high school life. While the teens depicted in the film certainly did adjust to the daily presence of the cameras in their lives, it’s also clear, as James Rocchi points out, that they also seem acutely aware of the camera. At the same time, the film’s short running length–especially when compared to a year of high school–guarantees that much of the tedium of high school will be cut, placing emphasis only on the most dramatic moments, something I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve written this review. In fact, my memory of high school is that every day seemed simultaneously tedious and overloaded with dramatic moments.

The comparison to John Hughes film is not accidental. Burstein has deliberately set her sights on using the tropes of high school films as well as coming-of-age documentaries, such as Michael Apted’s Up Series (7 Up, 42 Up, etc), and even the film’s poster art recalls the poster art for The Breakfast Club (in fact, at a glance, I confused the two). And while titling the film American Teen clearly sets Burstein up for criticism–Warsaw, Indiana, is very white, conservative, and very middle-class, not unlike my own suburban Atlanta high school, in fact–Burstein captures a world that was distinctly familiar to me when I was a graduate student teaching at Purdue. There was something oddly familiar and almost timeless about the world Burstein depicted; the students’ lives could have easily intersected with the students I taught several years earlier at Purdue.

At the same time, their world is clearly connected to a specific moment in time, as Megan bullies one of her friends by sending a revealing picture of her to the cell phones and computers of all her friends. That moment in particular raised some interesting questions about whether these students might experience their public and private lives in ways that are quite different than what I experienced in high school. While students could be incredibly vicious, spreading gossip about their classmates at the speed of sound, the viral movement of this picture across the internet was almost shocking, even for someone who writes semi-daily blog posts.

The four students face all of the difficulties of high school life. Colin, the athlete seems to face the stark choice of earning a college basketball scholarship or join the army. His father, who works part-time as an Elvis impersonator, sees few other options given the family’s economic status. Megan, the prom queen is desperate to earn her way into Notre Dame in order to preserve a family legacy, eventually lashing out at her friends as the pressure mounts. Hannah, the art-school type, confronts the pain of getting dumped, first by skippng school for several weeks before cautiously moving on. She eventually decides to set her sights on film school in San Francisco, a career choice that frightens her Hooiser mom. Jake, the geek, tentatively seeks out romance, first with a freshman who doesn’t know his reputation at the school and then later with a girl from another school, and as Rocchi observes, Jake seems to be “looking forward to college like a prisoner waiting for parole.”

Of course, to some extent, this desire to escape seems true of all four of Burstein’s subjects. You get the feeling that all of them are looking ahead, ready to move on to college and out of the small town that seems to define them. Whether that represents their actual experience or whether that is a narrative imposed onto the material by Burstein is another question. I was certainly ready to graduate from high school, ready to escape what seemed like an inalterable and utterly arbitrary place in the social life of my suburban high school, and Hannah and Jake, in particular, fight against the roles that have been assigned to them in what Hannah clearly recognizes as an unfair social system.

American Teen is an entertaining and enlightening documentary, one in which most viewers will see some version of themselves. I’m tempted, like Dennis Harvey, to wonder if the film is “so highly worked, so packed with high dramatic incidents” that it has borrowed too heavily from reality television, but in retrospect, I think that’s what high school is really like. While American Teen may be, as Harvey complains, “edited-within-an-inch-of-its-life,” so is high school in may ways. I found myself thinking about how important not going to senior prom felt at the time. It felt, quite literally, as if my life was headed down some horrible, irrevocable path. And, of course, every conversation with a prom queen or every college application I ever received in the mail was so loaded with meaning and significance that I think the film may be onto something in deploying that edge-of-its-life pace. Of course, I could have been a complete freak in high school. But I’m OK with that…I think.

Update: After a couple of private conversations and after reading Pamela’s review of American Teen, I’m starting to think that my initial comments were a bit too generous.  I remember thinking that I didn’t feel as if I had learned anything significantly new about teenagers, only that I had been presented with images of teenage life.  I’m well aware of the ambiguities of concepts such as authenticity, especially when it comes to identity.  I’m also aware of the ways in which the teens may have absorbed prescribed mediated roles, but the doc now feels a little too reality-TVish (is that even an adjective?) for my tatses.

1 Comment

  1. Doc Roundup: Full Frame, ‘Young@Heart’, and Errol Morris | POV Blog | PBS Said,

    December 14, 2012 @ 1:36 am

    […] he offers long, thoughtful reviews of many of the films he saw, including Bigger, Stronger, Faster, American Teen, At the Death House Door, and Trouble the Water. Overall, the Full Frame Festival wrapped up […]

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