American Teen (2008) dir. Nanette Burnstein
Nanette Burnstein, one half of the team who made two great documentaries “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” has gone on her own and directed “American Teen". By having the obiquitous moniker of “American” in the title (ie. American Graffiti, American Pie, American Gangster, American Psycho), the film aspires to be a definitive film on what it’s like to be a teenager in America. Unfortunately after 15 years of reality television behind it, Burnstein’s film feels no more authentic, dramatic or eye-opening than anything on MTV. It's a reasonably entertaining documentary, but not the definitive work on the subject.
Burnstein follows a year in the lives of 5 high school kids from Warsaw Indiana, a typical whitebread Christian red state town in middle America. From the opening Burnstein falls into autopilot by choosing her subjects based on those predetermined social cliques which permeate every high school film since “The Breakfast Club”. There’s Hannah Bailey (the loner), the artistic type who desires to escape the midwest and become a film director, Colin Clemens (the jock) the basketball star who desperately needs a scholarship in order to get into college, Mitch Reinholt (the heartthrob), the easy-going stud and fellow basketball player, Jake Tusing (the nerd), the socially awkward kid with bad hair and zits and Megan Krizmanich (the princess), the classic overachieving student council blonde hottie.
In traditional fashion we get to the see the students' cruel clique infighting and soft bullying. Megan is immediately portrayed as a stuck-up bitch especially when she forwards a naked picture of her friend to everyone in school and when she prank calls her afterwards to rub it in her face.
Jake Tusing is closely followed. He’s an introverted nerd with all the same insecurities about women as any of us did at that age, but he seems bold enough to ask out a bunch of girls and even get a girlfriend. Unfortunately his blasé attitude and droll demeanor is near sleep-inducing.
The best storyline belongs to Hannah Bailey who rides a rollercoaster of emotions including an earth-shattering breakup with her boyfriend at the beginning of the film the trauma of which causes her to miss weeks of school. A genuine surprise occurs midway through when Mr. Stud Mitch Reinholt takes an interest in her and together come to form the odd couple of the moment. It’s a truly satisfying moment to see Hannah bounce back and reclaim her dignity.
It all amounts to no more than an episode of “Friday Night Lights”. The film sails to close to the middle of the road and while we get to know Burnstein’s subjects pretty well, it fails to generate substantial drama or emotional turmoil for us to really care about what they do after they graduate. A sign of a good doc is one which causes you to want to discover where the subjects are now. Like “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, after that film was over I immediately went to the website to see what the current high score in Donkey Kong was. The only thing I did after “American Teen” was click back to TV and watch “The Hills”.
“American Teen” is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.