In 2006, Nanette Burstein aimed to find a place with a single high school and film its senior year. She found herself in Warsaw, Indiana, a generic North American town distinctive as Midwestern US only by its occasionally flat accents; otherwise it's white, upper-middle-class and Republican. "Red state all the way," the opening narration says.
Burstein focuses on five teens. There's Colin, the basketball star under pressure from his Elvis impersonator dad to get a scholarship, because apparently singing "Suspicious Minds" at 50th anniversary parties does not a college fund make.
Jake is the acne-afflicted, clarinet-playing nerd whose goal in life is to get a girlfriend, not because he likes a girl, but just for the sake of having one, and while good-hearted, he doesn't understand he has little to offer with his taxidermy and high Xbox scores.
Megan is the hick-hot queen bee, popular and bitchy, who's probably seen Mean Girls a bunch and completely missed the point. Her entire family has gone to Notre Dame, and when she's not emailing embarrassing pictures of girls she hates to the whole school, she frets about what will happen if she doesn't get in.
Mitch is blond and cute and a jock, but we never find out much about him except he's positioned as a modern-day Randal Pink Floyd, able to move between groups with ease and without fear of social retribution.
Hannah is the artsy one, a budding musician and filmmaker who doesn't care about high school: She just wants to get out of Indiana and show her heart to the world. Burstein clearly favours her, allowing her narration to open the film and ending with a shot of her about to take her life's next step.
There's been debate about how American Teen fits into the documentary mold, because the kids are so comfortable on camera that some scenes appear staged. But that argument doesn't fly nowadays, when children believe it's their birthright to be famous, and every moment is documented via digital cameras and Facebook. Set up as high school archetypes, your favourite character will emerge quickly, but Burstein, who last filmed Robert Evans ejaculating onto archival footage of himself in The Kid Stays in the Picture, gives all of them a tear-inducing moment, even Megan, whose all-that exterior belies a heavy family secret.
"The kids are so comfortable on camera that some scenes appear staged."
Here's the problem: Marketing a documentary is a challenge at the best of times, let alone during a summer full of tentpoles. Paramount Vantage has chosen to spin American Teen as a modern-day Breakfast Club. The poster poses the five teens followed in the iconic composition of the 1985 John Hughes classic. The press materials assign archetypes to each of them: Princess, Jock, Rebel, et cetera.
It's a weird tactic, considering the kids featured in the film weren't even born when Breakfast Club was released, so the producers are either banking on the nostalgia of an older generation or hoping that John Hughes has struck a chord with this one, which would be ideal but also unlikely. It also hurts the movie narratively---Mitch's story is the least fleshed-out, and we only see him in his home environs when he starts dating Hannah. It's unfortunate, because cutting the focus to the remaining four would have allowed more time with each and added more depth to the movie overall.
It's also the wrong culture reference. The film plays more like Friday Night Lights---with its depiction of a small town that puts everything into its sports teams and onto the young men who comprise them (Colin), the kids who will never leave and don't see any problem with that (Mitch), and the oddballs who consider staying a death sentence (Hannah)---or, more accurately, the Fox/PBS series American High (2000), an underrated entry in the first reality boom that followed a group of kids in suburban Illinois.
Regardless of its flaws, inherent or external, there's no argument that American Teen is a compelling, heartfelt film that's equally humourous and honest, and under two hours, which all put it above the bulk of this summer's hits. It's worth seeking out.
American Teen is playing now at Bayers Lake. For more info, see Movie Times.