The defining moment of Nanette Burstein’s documentary American Teen comes more than halfway through the film, when Megan, a popular blonde prone to mood swings, is arguing with a friend, an equally popular and equally blonde young woman who wants Megan to join her at a party. They’re sitting in Megan’s kitchen — well, Megan’s parents’ kitchen, at any rate — and having it out when the friend begins to casually remove her wireless microphone and roll up the cord around the battery box. She’s getting ready to storm out with a “Fuck this!” and a huffy exit, but before she can, she has to take off her mic, and she does so with a removed calm that belies the weirdness of the act. She’s not interested in making a big exit; her first priority is to make sure the microphone is carefully removed. It’s a subtle detail, but it shifts the scene’s focus, turning it from a spat between friends to one that must necessarily navigate the technological and mildly exploitative trappings required to film it in the first place. This is the whole point of American Teen, a film about a group of high school seniors in Indiana: Everything, even the private stuff, is done for show. That’s not to say the film is completely dishonest; there are, scattered throughout, the kind of alternately cringe-inducing, heartbreaking, and uplifting moments that perfectly reflect that moment of abject hell when you begin to really grow up. But they’re inextricably entwined with a fetishistic sense of self-disclosure that does more to reinforce the classic stereotypes of high schoolers than it does to open them up to broader and truer definitions. “You see us as you want to see us; in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions,” said the kids in John Hughes’ seminal The Breakfast Club. But while they meant it as a complaint, a battle cry against encroaching adulthood, Burstein seems to have viewed that line as a challenge to be met. And, sadly, meet it she does.
The film even begins with a nod to The Breakfast Club, as Hannah, one of the main characters, narrates about the first day of senior year, setting the stage for nine months’ worth of muddled drama. Incorporating interviews and sound bites from other students, including the central cast, Burstein quickly introduces Hannah, the artistic girl who doesn’t fit in with the conservative vibe of Warsaw, Indiana; Jake, the band geek struggling with acne and a deep need to get a girlfriend; Colin, the basketball star looking for a college scholarship; Megan, the affluent student council leader who sits perched atop the school’s “caste system”; and Mitch, another basketball player who will eventually cross paths with Hannah. If Mitch were a bad boy with an abusive father, you’d have modern-day replicas of Hughes’ caricatures; this is not necessarily a good thing. After that, Burstein begins the considerable task of charting the lives of these kids and their friends over the course of their final year of high school, and it turns out to be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the story mostly writes itself, with everything from occasional obstacles like dances and championship games leading up to the high-stakes ending of college acceptance, graduation, and the false sense that you know what you’re doing with your life the moment you turn 18. But conversely, the film is a little too broadly focused: Trying to juggle the lives and futures of just five kids for 100 minutes is inherently going to mean skimping on depth, and that lack of introspection on behalf of the filmmaker starts to show up before too long. American Teen wants to play like a novelistic narrative, but it winds up feeling like a series of anecdotes pinned together by a consistency of cast and location.
Burstein’s biggest problem is her apparent unwillingness to provide context to situations that without it become overly melodramatic or archetypal. For instance, Colin is a bright kid and good ball player whose folks can’t afford to send him to college unless he lands a substantial scholarship. That kind of pressured storyline is nothing new in film or real life, right down to Colin’s lamenting that “if we don’t do well, the community’s gonna go nuts,” but things get even tougher when Colin’s dad tells him that without a scholarship, the boy is headed for the Army or Navy or somebody to foot the bill for a university education. It’s a weird escalation of the story made even more perplexing by the fact that Burstein offers no other evidence for the choice facing Colin: no discussion of the family’s income beyond Colin’s father’s classification that they’re “comfortable but not wealthy”; no examination of the family’s debt or employment issues, if any; basically no indication that this is anything other than a hyperserious threat without much history to give it sense. Then there’s Colin’s dad, whose job status is never discussed but who, just when the story couldn’t get what-the-fuckier, is seen more than once performing as an Elvis impersonator for groups of senior citizens. Is this how he earns a living? Is this a hobby? What’s going on? These are questions that even a second-rate fictional narrative would answer, but Burstein never says, and in doing so makes it clear that she’s just out to make a vaguely truthful, largely staged video essay about a group of kids who are likely more emotionally complex than the film can convey.
As the year rolls on, the central characters fall in and out of love, tumbling through the painful and confusing relationships that make for the most convincing moments of the film. Hannah gets her heart broken and loses the confidence she once had, struggling to understand why someone she loved could discard her, and it’s wrenching to see someone so young go through that for the first time; you want to tell her it gets easier, but then, you don’t want to lie to her, either. Jake is similarly lovelorn, a zit-laden kid who plays in the marching band, plays a lot of video games, and is filled with a self-loathing that borders on pity. The scene where he decided to ask out a freshman in the band by going to her house with red roses is achingly painful, and it’s these observations of a weird kid trying and failing to figure out life that require the least amount of polish or staging from Burstein. But even those moments are somehow nothing more than the expected painful scenes that are “supposed” to happen with the “geek.” What’s more, you’d think that Burstein, free from the bonds of network TV or some other dampening outlet, would use the film to at least go into some depth on the sexual battlefield teens find themselves walking, but nothing doing. This is a PG-13 documentary, and aside from one character’s post-coital mention of “fooling around,” no one even talks about sex. In this version of the world, it doesn’t exist.
Burstein’s shallowness shows in other areas, too. It comes as no surprise that Megan, prone to mood swings, does some terribly mean things to other girls at school, particularly a girl who starts spending time with a boy Megan knows and won’t admit to herself that she likes. Megan’s attack on the girl is devastating, the kind of reputation-ruining campaign that makes your jaw drop, but Megan’s never asked about feeling remorse, and the event disappears once the story plays out, just one more fading memory from high school. It would have been nice if Burstein had attempted to capture Megan on a larger scale, instead of the eventual character sketch she creates of a rich girl with a family tragedy fueling her occasional swings. It just feels so rote, so happy to reinforce the stereotypes — rich girl, athletic boy, geeky kid — that Burstein could have easily exploded if she’d just dug a little deeper.
But maybe I’m the one that’s digging too deep. I’d hoped that the film would be the kind of touching and enlightening look at a difficult time in all our lives, a time that’s already receding for me but still not too far gone. But American Teen is ultimately a silent ode to the first real generation to grow up steeped in reality TV and social networking, both of which familiarize users with a surreal version of life even while encouraging them to construct personas suitable for chatting. The kids in American Teen rely heavily on online communication and text messaging — one guy even has the balls to dump a girlfriend that way — but Burstein is regrettably quiet on what role that level of interpersonal communication plays in the way the kids develop, mature, and spend time with each other. The film is exploitive to the degree that it sidesteps issues of staged B-roll and acontextual situations played for broad pathos, but on the other hand, these kids have been posing all their lives. They’ve been practicing for the act of being filmed without even knowing it, which in some ways makes American Teen one of the more distressingly real documentaries in a long time.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.I Am So Popular. Everbody Loves Me So Much at This School.
Film | July 28, 2008 | Comments ()