American Teen (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
American Teen Poster

American Teen, which has captured audience awards and drawn standing ovations at film festivals from coast-to-coast, is the latest example of a growing genre called "DINO" (Documentaries In Name Only). Combining candid footage with staged events, DINO directors assemble everything in the editing room, freely scrambling the chronology and cutting as they see fit. The goal is less to provide a slice of reality than it is to approximate a fictionalized version of that reality. DINOs are the motion picture equivalent of reality television, and American Teen is among the most accomplished to come along yet. In fact, it's so adeptly assembled that it has been picked up by a major distributor (Paramount) with an eye toward opening it in more than just art houses. The target audience isn't the usual "stodgy" crowd but the MTV post-music video generation. This is The Real World on a more ambitious scale.

The events chronicled during the course of American Teen occur in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana during the 2005-06 school year. It follows the lives of four seniors from varying social circles, intending to present a "cross-section" of high school life. (Note: since Warsaw Community High is predominantly white, it comes as no surprise that none of the highlighted characters are minorities.) Colin Clemens, the team's star basketball player, represents athletic royalty. Megan Krizmanich is the Queen Bee or, more appropriately, the Queen Bitch. Jake Tusing is the self-proclaimed "supergeek." And Hannah Bailey is the artistic outsider. American Teen travels with these four as they pick their way through the minefield of the last year of adolescence, striving to get into their #1 college choices, finding and losing love, trying to relate to their parents as adults, and attending parties and dances. If there's one resounding message that American Teen delivers, it's that high school hasn't changed since I attended it 23 years ago. The clich├ęs that were true then are true now.

The movie is entertaining on a superficial level, but there's little beneath the surface. The characters are presented shallowly and American Teen plays like an angst-riddled highlight reel of typical teen problems, all of which are wrapped up into nicely resolved little packages by the time the movie ends. American Teen offers no real insight into the minds and motivations of these individuals beyond the obvious (peer pressure, parental influence - both good and bad, a mixture of fear and anticipation of the future). For those who have survived their teenage years, there's not much here to excite. Thus, the strongest appeal is likely for those still going through the process. They'll be able to relate on an immediate level.

Nanette Burstein, a respected documentarian (The Kid Stays in the Picture), has played fast and loose with the unwritten "rules" of the genre. The film's artifice is will be evident even to someone who doesn't know much about how the movie was put together. Numerous scenes are obviously staged and/or recreations. Conversations play to the camera. The chronology is out-of-whack. (Watch for Jake's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't acne.) This is a movie that wants to be a feature film while using documentary techniques. It's a hybrid, and almost more interesting as a study in how this sort of movie can be crafted than as a story-telling vehicle. The seams are always on display (look for the wireless mike clipped to a girl's belt), constantly reminding us what we're watching and killing any dramatic momentum. If there's an honest "making of" feature on the DVD, it would be worthwhile to watch.

The decision to follow four characters instead of one leads to a skewed sense of who they are. The best developed and most interesting is Hannah, who undergoes a transformation during the course of the movie. Yet there's a lot left out. At one point, she has an emotional meltdown and there's a casual mention that she is being medicated for depression, yet the film glosses over that aspect of her life and moves on to her relationship with a new boyfriend. Megan is a stereotypical self-absorbed brat who whines about life being unfair even as she terrorizes everyone around her, including her so-called friends. A revelation about her past may explain her behavior, but does not excuse it. Colin may be the most one-dimensional of the four principles. He's an athlete not meeting his potential who wants a scholarship so he can go to college. Excepting a few conversations between him and his Elvis impersonating Dad, we rarely glimpse Colin off the court. Jake provides American Teen's comic relief. He's a geek (but not a nerd) who is socially awkward and loves playing video games. All he wants is a girlfriend.

The film's trio of editors (Burstein, Tom Haneke, Mary Manhardt) deserve an award for what they have wrought. As much as Michael Moore's films, this one was assembled in the cutting room. 10 months of footage plus some manipulative animation were combined into four interwoven, coherent narratives. All of the characters have clearly defined arcs although it's unclear than anyone except Hannah is any different at the end than at the beginning. The film is fast-paced, eschewing any of the "little" moments that often make character-based documentaries interesting, in favor of big, melodramatic events. Instead of going the Michael Apted/Up Series approach of depicting the characters in their reality, Burstein elects to warp the reality to fit her vision of the characters. Her goal is less to provide insight into the complexity of being an American teen than to make a John Hughes movie (the poster is a direct copy of the one for The Breakfast Club). She also employs a cavalcade of pop music to enhance the feature film resemblance.

Watching American Teen is a little like eating junk food. It goes down easily and is tasty to start with but, after a while, it's just greasy and unappetizing. Eat too much and you'll either get fat or throw up. This kind of production is better suited to television than movie theaters. American Teen is a pretty bauble: shiny and alluring from a distance but cheap and plastic when you get close.

American Teen (United States, 2008)

Director: Nanette Burstein
Cast: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Jake Tusing
Screenplay: Nanette Burstein
Cinematography: Laela Kilbourn
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2008-07-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1