The closest Judge Erich Asperschlager got to being an all-star athlete in high school was his brief stint with the Future Problem Solvers.
Remember high school? It's gotten worse.
Do you remember high school? The friends, the pressure, the parties, the feeling that no one understands you, especially not your parents? Yeah, me neither, but I'm sure there are plenty of people for whom high school was every bit as trying and triumphant as it is for the students whose senior year is chronicled in the Nanette Burstein documentary American Teen.
Facts of the Case
American Teen tells the story of the 2005-2006 senior year for a group of five students in Warsaw, Indiana—each with his or her own perspectives, personalities, and pressures: Megan, the bitchy prom queen, who rules her tiny kingdom while secretly fearing disappointing her dad if she can't get into the family alma mater; Colin, the basketball star, whose only hope of college is to play well enough this year to get a sports scholarship; Mitch, the heartthrob who seems to have everything going for him; Jake, the video game-playing band geek desperate to overcome his shyness and get a girlfriend; and Hannah, the free spirit who can't wait to get out of Indiana and follow her dreams of becoming a director.
As far as I can tell, the only thing that's really changed from when I was in high school is that everyone has cell phones now. As much as adults like to glorify being young, high school is difficult. It's not all pep rallies and ice cream socials. Get that many hormonal teens into one place and it's amazing they don't get into more trouble than they do. I'd like to pretend that when I was in school no one drank, gossiped, had casual sex, or tormented each other in ways that violate the Geneva Convention—but they did. You'd hear stories in Monday morning homeroom you'll never see on the Disney channel. American Teen doesn't shy away from telling those stories. For all the boundary-pushing going on in Hollywood, few films show teens as they really talk and act. Raunchy sex comedies like Superbad stylize one part of the hormone cocktail that is high school, but sexual awakening isn't the only way teens are busy becoming adults. Burstein (who co-directed 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture) has somehow gotten close enough to these kids to capture them as they really are. And if that sounds like I'm describing a nature special, you're not far off.
The most impressive thing about American Teen is that Burstein and her crew were able to get the footage they did. The level of intimacy and comfort around the cameras these kids have is possible only in this age of reality TV. Why else would a group of teens let a stranger film them making obscene phone calls, drinking, cheating on each other, confessing their deepest desires, or in the awkward final moments of a date where neither person wants to initiate the goodnight kiss? On the other hand, why do teens post inappropriate photos of themselves on social network sites? This is amazingly honest stuff, and a major reason some people have wondered whether parts of this story were scripted.
It is astounding that Burstein was able to film both sides of certain phone calls, or was there at the exact moment one person received a text message break-up. But I don't believe this was scripted (a charge Burstein and the film's subjects vehemently deny). A lot of American Teen's serendipity can be chalked up to careful editing, and to the fact that more than a year's worth of footage is somehow crammed into a 100-minute film.
Some documentarians take a hands-off approach to their subjects. Not Burstein. She takes every creative liberty to tell this story in the most interesting way. That means clever editing, audio-visual effects, and even animation. Each of the main characters gets his or her own short animated sequence, illustrating the primary hope, dream, or fear that defines their story. Purists can argue whether Burstein's heavy hand is appropriate in a documentary. The rest of us can enjoy the results.
Burstein's attention to detail makes this one of the best looking and sounding documentaries in a while—no mean feat considering all the different locations she has to film in. Surround sound is mostly reserved for the hip soundtrack, with the occasional effect adding that extra bit of authenticity.
Bonus features include cast interviews that end just before they get good, several deleted scenes, character-specific trailers, and a series of ten "Hannah Blogs," which give the movie's de facto heroine more time to ruminate on life, the universe, and everything (it's easy to see why Burstein favors this aspiring female filmmaker).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It must take a lot of work to distill a yearlong experience into a feature-length film. How do you stay true to your subjects when you have to cut out such large portions of their lives? Though the end result is impressive and compelling, my biggest problem with American Teen is that it moves too darn fast. The first day of classes becomes Christmas in the blink of an eye. Though the individual stories don't necessarily suffer for the fast-forwarded timeline, it can be difficult to follow what's going on in the subplots, many of which end as soon as they've begun.
The structure also leaves little time for a real through-story. Each character has a clearly defined set of goals and conflicts, but only a few of the narratives intersect. I suppose if the worst you can say about a documentary is that you wanted to spend more time with its subjects, however, it's hard to count that as a negative.
Even when they're doing something you hope they look back on with regret—like vandalizing a classmate's house for changing the prom theme, or mass e-mailing topless photos to get revenge—it's hard to root against these kids. No one's the hero, no one's the villain. Whether you identify more with the kids or their parents, American Teen captures what it's like to be in limbo between childhood and being an adult. It's honest, touching, disturbing, and funny. Check it out.
[Editor's Note: American Teen is available for purchase exclusively at Target, but can be rented at all major rental outlets.]
On this day, graduate, the court finds you not guilty.
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