Documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein followed a handful of high-school seniors for their last year of school in small-town Warsaw, Indiana. With gossip, crushes, rejection, peer pressure, and bad skin, American Teen is a fascinating and well-crafted slice of life that has as much drama and often unintentional comedy as an 80s John Hughes movie (which it obviously emulates).
In this one-high-school town, basketball is king, and the reigning prince is jock Colin. Colin’s family is not as well-off as many in the town, so he’s under pressure to play well his final year so that he can get a basketball scholarship to a good school. He’s a well-balanced kid, but the stress is starting to affect his game.
Hannah is the alterna-girl freak (to some at least), meaning she is artistic, funny, creative, and wants to break out of town as soon as she graduates. (She disdainfully tells her parents that she doesn’t want to “end up” working as a “9 to 5-er like them”… Ahhh, youth!) Unfortunately, a boyfriend breaks her heart first, spiraling her into a month of depression and anxiety where she practically drops out of school.
Jake is a band-nerd who wants a girlfriend more than anything, though he often shoots himself in the foot with his self-esteem issues. I must say for someone who bemoans that he feels like a single sock always missing his pair, he sure seems to be dating a lot of girls during the year.
And finally Megan is the princess, and in the film, the mega-bitch. Yikes. Remember the mean girls from high school? Well, that’s Megan. She is the center of her own universe, and seems truly shocked when a mean-spirited prank actually gets her in trouble with the principal, as well as puts a bad mark on her record. What will Notre Dame think? (I really wish and hope that the administration at Notre Dame got to see this film.) The film attempts to soften Megan with her family’s own story of tragedy, but wow, she is a hard girl to like.
A few more “characters” fill out the movie, including Mitch, the handsome jock who suddenly becomes smitten with Hannah despite the scorn of his friends; Colin’s dad, who is an Elvis-impersonator, who tells his son over and over that he HAS to get a scholarship because the family simply can’t afford to send him to college; and Megan’s circle of best friends, whom she is astonishingly quick to turn on if they cross her.
The film is funny, cringe-inducing, and occasionally heartbreaking, playing like a real-life re-enactment of The Breakfast Club (with a marketing campaign to match). There has been discussion and debate online about the film, questioning how “real” a documentary can be that follows media-savvy kids for a year. This generation is weaned on reality TV, so when Megan slaps her best friend Jeff, it comes across as vaguely shocking, but more than a little calculated for the camera.
When senior year wraps up, and the tassels are turned, American Teen begs the question, “Where are they now?” Closing credits offer self-penned summaries of the subjects’ lives two years later (most self-effacing), and the DVD includes a few press-junket interviews with the young folks. It is heartening to hear that Megan has grown up and is basically horrified by her behavior in the film (let’s hope she has changed), and it was kind of funny how despite that, she still dominates an interview when another person is sitting next to her. There are also some of Hannah’s video blogs that were used in the marketing campaign, and some deleted scenes—the funniest and most excruciating involving Jake and his date saying goodbye after the school dance while maybe moving in for a kiss. They are totally working the moment with the camera watching, but at the same time you see the true glint of teen flush when they finally pull back from a short make-out session.