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American Teen (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

American Teen

American Teen


Featuring Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Geoff Haase, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing and Ali Wikalinska.

Written by Nanette Burnstein.

Directed by Nanette Burnstein.

Distributed by Paramount Vantage.  95 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

The dividing line between serious documentaries and reality television gets more and more blurred as the trend becomes more ubiquitous in our society.

American Teen has the pedigree of a serious documentary – it is directed by Nanette Burnstein, who helmed the fascinating look at producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture – and yet it has picked up some bad habits from reality.

There is a big difference between the real world and The Real World, and American Teen, while trying to give us a glimpse into the lives of a bunch of “real” teens in America in the 00s, stacks the deck too much.  There are quite a few situations which feel like they were staged.  The banter seems a little too polished.  The triumphant highs and tragic lows all seem to be well-lit and caught just a hair too handily.

Last year I interviewed famed director Michael Apted, who is the father of this brand of filmmaking with the acclaimed Up! series of movies, which followed the lives of a group of British schoolchildren from seven years old and revisited their lives every seven years.  (They were 49 in the most recent installment.)  Apted, who acknowledges he is no fan of reality television, had this perceptive distinction between documentary and reality TV.

“As an idea, reality tends to put people in contrived or unusual circumstances and see how they respond,” Apted said.  “A documentary attempts to catch life as it is.  To show a reality rather than show how people react in alien circumstances.  Which can be very interesting, but I think there is a difference.  Reality lends itself to more exploitation really than a documentary does.”

American Teen seems to be coming down somewhere in the middle.  It really is trying to capture the kids of an Indiana High School in their world, and yet it is manipulating that world for its own merits.  These kids are being exploited slightly, though not necessarily in a bad way.  The sincerity of American Teen seems to be a lot closer to the Oprah level than Big Brother or The Real Cancun.  I do believe that Burnstein cares for these kids and wants desperately to impart their stories, though I do also wonder if she didn’t somewhat impose her own beliefs and preconceptions upon them.

Some of this may even be impossible to avoid.  Despite the fact that Burnstein has captured a mostly clever and intriguing cross-section of a modern high school, too often you feel that they are performing for the cameras rather than living their lives.  Of course, a certain amount of that is inevitable – no one, no matter how genuine, will totally be themselves while on camera.  Still, sometimes you feel that the director is caressing the action, when it is supposed to be her job to be detachedly and unobtrusively capturing it.

Even the poster captures our students in a self-conscious tribute to beloved 80s high school drama The Breakfast Club.  In many ways, the two films are similar – they divide their characters into broad social castes such as jocks, nerds, popular kids, arty kids, weird kids and stoners.  However, The Breakfast Club was a work of fiction with its own plot points and agendas.  American Teen is not supposed to.  By using these kids in this iconic image, it is coloring how we react to the kids and what we will expect from them.

It’s too bad, because the whole thing is about these five kids chafing against the expectations placed upon them by their small town life.

The obvious breakout character, or at least as the film is concerned, is Hannah.  Hannah is arty (she wants to move to California and work in movies!), individual (she says she is a liberal in white-bread Indiana), quirky (she dresses vaguely goth and lives in an old Moody Blues t-shirt) and sensitive (after breaking up with her boyfriend after their first sexual experience, she is unable to go back to school for over two weeks.)  Hannah is a charming, sweet, funny girl and does make an interesting documentary subject – though honestly she is not nearly as quirky or arty as the filmmakers like to suggest.  Maybe for small town Indiana, but to a city audience she just seems like a nice, if a little confused, teenaged girl.

The other end of the spectrum is Megan, the beautiful, rich queen bee.  She is a complete horror – mean, spiteful, rude, stuck-up and frankly a total bitch.  Megan obviously has a bit of a crush on her long-time best friend Geoff, however she won’t admit to it or act on it.  Instead, she makes the lives of everyone else in his circle miserable – even forwarding a topless photo of one of her best friends to the entire student body and vandalizing a local boy’s home.  Then, she uses the suicide of her older sister as a glib excuse for her poor actions.

Like the girls, in the case of the boys, the loser is much more interesting than the supposedly together one.  Colin is the local basketball star.  His father was also a local star, and now pushes his son to either get a basketball scholarship or join the military or take over dad’s gig as an Elvis impersonator (apparently the only quirky part of this square kid’s life).  Honestly, Colin doesn’t seem to be that great a player, seems to have no personal life other than joking with the guys on the team and seems to only be interested in getting a scholarship.

The only interest in Jake’s life, on the other hand, is finding a girlfriend.  This isn’t exactly the simplest thing because he is a band geek.  He also has no self-confidence and absolutely no game.  After laying his head on a table, he actually points out to the girl he is with that he has gotten the table oily with his acne.  As you might imagine, this did not go over very well.  Jake is a self-confessed loser (in fact, he points it out so often that it would tend to scare most girls away) and one animated fantasy sequence in which Jake uses the video game The Legend of Zelda to describe how he would vanquish a competitor for a teen girl’s attention skirts just a little too close to Columbine territory for comfort.  Still despite all he has stacked against him (and perhaps because he is being followed around by a camera crew) Jake actually does have a couple of cute-if-short-lived relationships with girls who probably could do much better than him.

In the end, American Teen is a rather old-fashioned film, looking at basically good and basically very normal kids who live pretty average high school lives.  Oh, sure, there are a few nods at the new millennium (a guy breaks up with Hannah by text message!), but otherwise this could be anytime and anyplace in the world.  I respected and enjoyed American Teen, but I have to think that it could have been so much more cutting edge if it took more chances and let the kids of the high school really, really be themselves.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 19, 2008.

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