Directed by award-winning film maker Nanette Burnstein (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture) the documentary American Teen was filmed in Warsaw, Indiana over the course of the 2005-2006 school year. Warsaw appears to be the type of place that Hollywood loves to mythologize, the typical Midwestern town where the biggest event is the upcoming homecoming game and the rest of the world barely exists.
For an entire school year, Burnstein focused her camera lens on five Warsaw high school students during their senior year. All of them fall into familiar archetypes that you will recognize no matter how long ago you grabbed your diploma-the princess, the jock, the geek, the rebel and the heartthrob.
First we have Megan Krizmanich, the school’s queen bee. She’s pretty and popular, the daughter of a surgeon and student council president. She’s also a “mean girl” who even turns her venom on her own friends.
Jake Tusing is the kid no one notices in high school. He’s a band geek and addicted to video games. He’s also got a lethal case of acne and a mouth full of braces but that won’t deter him from finding a girlfriend.
Colin Clemens is the star basketball player. Instead of being the stereotypical jerk athlete, Colin is nice all-around guy. But underneath his easygoing nature, is desperation. He needs a scholarship to pay for college.
Hannah Bailey is the rebellious alternative girl. Hannah is artsy, creative and plays guitar in a band. Her biggest goal in life is to get out of Warsaw.
Mitch Reinholt is the dreamboat. Like Colin, he’s a jock and runs with the cool crowd. He has a killer smile and on a superficial level seems to be just another vapid pretty boy, until he falls for Hannah.
During the school year, the kids have moments of pure joy, and moments of self-doubt. They have their triumphs and tribulations. All of this is captured by the unblinking eye of Burnstein’s camera.
Early in the school year, Hannah is dumped by her boyfriend. This causes her to go into a tailspin of intense depression. She misses so many days of school that graduation hangs in the balance. Megan’s bitchiness goes out of control. When she gets her hands on a friend’s compromising photo, she e-mails it to everyone at school. Her friend is deemed a skank and becomes the school pariah. Told by his dad that he needs to get a scholarship to afford college (or go in the Army), Colin becomes a selfish player on the court, and causes conflict with his team mates.
Jake awkwardly looks for a girlfriend, and finally finds one among the freshman girls. But she dumps him for the band’s studmuffin, and Jake goes through a cringe-worthy attempt to find a new girlfriend.
At one of her gigs, Mitch finds himself attracted to Hannah, and they start going out. However, later on he caves into peer pressure. After all, their separate castes should never even talk to each other, let alone date. So Mitch breaks up with Hannah via text message.
Family also comes into play in American Teen. During the movie, we find out that Megan’s family suffered a horrible tragedy. She also feels a great deal of pressure to get into Notre Dame, the alma mater of most of her family, including her successful father. Colin’s father embarrasses his son by working as an Elvis impersonator part-time. It doesn’t take much to embarrass one’s kids, but being an Elvis impersonator really takes the cake.
But it’s Hannah’s parents who truly broke my heart. Her father is distant and her mother is a manic depressive. When Hannah tries to convince both of them the importance of going to San Francisco to study film, her parents tell her that she shouldn’t expect much out of life. When Hannah’s mother coldly says to her, “You’re not that special,” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I can only imagine how Hannah felt.
During the film we see kids ignoring the teachers, hanging out with their friends, yawning during class, drinking too much, talking about sex, dancing at prom, and sending text messages. These kids pretty much do what a lot of us did in high school. Okay, some of us our too old to have sent text messages in high school. And interspersed throughout the film, are several animated segments that convey the dreams and desires of these kids.
At the end, we see Colin, Megan, Hannah, Jake and Mitch graduate and go on with their post-high school lives. We also learn what they are up in the two years since they graduated, but I’ll refrain on sharing this information.
For the most part, American Teen, is engrossing, suspenseful and affecting. I ended up caring about these kids, even Megan, who I wanted to smack most of the time. However, just because this is a documentary doesn’t mean that some parts didn’t seem staged. For instance, after she feels she is backstabbed by another student council member over the prom theme, Megan defaces his house with toilet paper and homophobic graffiti. Would she have done this without the prodding of the ever present cameras? I’m not sure. Then again, in a time where kids expose their crazy revelry on various social media and on YouTube, I shouldn’t be surprised to see a scene like this. And anyone familiar with reality TV shows know that what is supposed to be “real” can be as easily manipulated as any fictional TV show or movie.
In the end, American Teen gives us the old adage that the more things change the more they stay the same. Pretty much anyone who went to high school will be able to relate in some way to these kids and the cliques that define them.
American Teen’s Nanette Burnstein