American Teen
No, I like you more!

Golden Mug


Best Documentary

Theatrical Release Date: 08/08/2008
Director: Nanette Burstein
Featured Students: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Jake Tusing, Mitch Reinholt

Capturing the high school experience and putting it on film is one of the most elusive tasks filmmakers have undertaken. Some films manage to graze the surface but ultimately they all sugar-coat the experience, creating unrealistic endings where the nerdiest kid in school gets the head cheerleader or some other such nonsense that makes us feel warm and fuzzy but rings hollow of any high school stories I’ve been privy to. However, director Nanette Burstein is the first filmmaker I’ve seen who captured the essence of what high school life is actually about.

In “American Teen”, Burstein sets the cameras upon a group of seniors at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana (the city of Warsaw obviously). It’s a small town, in exactly all the ways those unfamiliar with small towns would picture them from the lyrics of a John Mellencamp song. The community is overwhelmingly white, middle to upper-middle class and perpetuate the stereotype about small towns and high school sports (in this case, basketball is the game of choice).

The teens featured in the film talk openly about sex and alcohol, all while spreading rumors or laying down profanity laced rants about people at school they don’t like. In short, it’s exactly what most high schools are like and I actually felt like I was watching real teenagers on-screen – not the overly verbose, emotionally-mature “teenagers” most films give us.

The “documentary” (more on the quotation fingers later) focuses on a few of the most iconic high school sub-strata: band geek, jock, princess (spoiled bitch), alternative artistic chick and the cute, preppy boy all the girls swoon over. With this, it comes as no surprise that the promotional posters are a take on “The Breakfast Club” and while normally I’d just laugh if someone thought they were getting a normal feature film that was some sort of remake, the joke really is on all the people who don’t see “American Teen”.

I was expecting a decent documentary going into it but was truly surprised at how entertaining and energetic the film remained from beginning to end. It was so easy to become invested in the kids because they were all living through experiences familiar to anyone who attended high school (sorry, Arkansas). Burstein played with chronology a little bit but only to better serve the continuity of each character’s story so I can’t really complain about that and found it easy enough to understand why certain events were out of place.

Another bright spot for the film were the animated segments about each main senior that Burstein focused on. They represented their emotional state and each segment was individually tailored to match up with the student, allowing another way for the audience to connect.

Coming out of the theater, I thought to myself, “Wow, someone actually got it right. This is what high school was like.” Although it’s a film practically devoid of diversity (the only minorities are seen in the background or on the basketball team), the emotional core of high school life was splattered all over the screen to see.

Funny enough, as I waited for the film to begin, I was “treated” to a group of 13-16 year-olds behind me (they mentioned their age … along with everything else). As they went on and on about their sex lives, drug use (or lack thereof) and gossiped about people they knew and/or hated, I kept thinking how apropos it was to listen to all of this before watching this documentary. (And I don’t normally eavesdrop but they weren’t being subtle at all and I would have had to put in earplugs or move to escape the conversations).

Fittingly, after all of the drama I was privy to, the teens then had the marvelous and expected audacity to be incredulous about the actions of the teens in the documentary. It reminded me how myopic teenagers can be about the world around them (adults have this problem too often enough).

I mention this me-centric mentality because what amazed me most about the students in the film was how blunt and seemingly honest they all were. Being well aware of new media, you’d think these 21st century teens would think twice about discussing their sex lives or alcohol use – realizing that their parents, community and most importantly, the people they were trashing, could eventually see the film. It’s like MTV’s “The Real World”. There’s always some idiot who has a boyfriend/girlfriend back at home and ends up sleeping with a fellow cast mate – hoping their beau will never find out … Duh! You’re on TV! But in the case of the “American Teen” kids, they’re holding very little back it seems and that’s a credit to Burstein.

Now onto the bad news … allegedly. I’ve been talking about how real these teenagers seemed and how wonderful it was to see their senior year plastered up on the silver screen. However, in perusing a few message boards online, I found people purporting to have been students at Warsaw Community High School at the time “American Teen” was filmed (2006 school year). They posted that the documentary was largely fake – that Burstein had designed many of the story angles exhibited in the film. Also, there was a lot of complaining about how the film crew took over the school and would be completely in the way of general classroom and overall school activities.

Without traveling to Indiana (where I did live for a time) and tracking down students to interview, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain the veracity of these claims. However, in looking back on the film, I wouldn’t discount it completely. The story lines are “too clean”, all having a beginning, middle and end … which never seemed to happen when I went to high school. The students who are at the center of the film are mostly from the more influential elements of the small town. The skeptic in me cries “foul” but I have no actual proof to back it up.

All I do know for sure is the experience I took away from watching the film … and I loved it. No matter how much is fabricated for the sake of entertainment, the emotional content feels genuine. I was able to connect with so much of the film and relate it to my own experiences, unlike any other high school film that I’ve seen before.

Also, this serves to remind me that one should never automatically assume that just because a project is labeled a “documentary”, that it should all be taken as fact. All film making has bias, as it’s being crafted by people who have natural (though not necessarily destructive) biases. Even in documentaries composed of news footage, there’s still a lot to be said for how you edit those pieces together to tell a story.

That being said, I still can’t recommend “American Teen” highly enough and unless direct proof of its falsity is uncovered, I’ll back my grade for the film as a 5 out of 5. This is the must-see documentary of 2008 and only the home-schooled would find it hard to connect and truly enjoy the film.