American TeenWritten and directed by Nanette BursteinStarring Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt and Jake Tusing.Rated PG-13O7.5OGoes well with: The Breakfast Club, Heathers, My So-Called Life
American Teen, the new film from Nanette Burstein, is being compared to movies like The Breakfast Club and TV shows like My So-Called Life. That makes sense, because, even though American Teen is a documentary—following five kids from Indiana—it touches on themes and characters similar to those in its fictional counterparts.
“In teenage life, there's a lot of wishful thinking,” says Burstein, who also uses animation liberally to convey what her subjects are going through. “I wish I could get that guy, or I wish I could get into that college, or I wish people would like me more. I really wanted to get that side of it—their inner lives.”
Burstein, probably best known for her previous doc, The Kid Stays in the Picture, selected disparate teens for her year-long project. There's Megan, the popular mean girl; Jake, the acne-riddled band geek; Colin, the star athlete desperate for a basketball scholarship; the popular heartthrob Mitch; and Hannah, the quirky art girl who's desperate to get out of the Midwest. Most of us know how challenging, heartbreaking and, occasionally, wonderful high school can be. Each of Burstein's subjects faces slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, enjoys some small victories and suffers agonizing defeats during the course of the year. Sometimes it's because of decisions they've made or because of their social status, and sometimes it's because high school just fucking sucks.
Burstein saw hundreds of kids at 10 different high schools before settling on her subjects. “You really do cast documentaries,” she says. “You're not only casting individuals. You're casting stories, too. I was looking for kids in different social classes, different social cliques, and they needed a strong storyline. They needed to want something very strongly for that year to happen to them, and they also needed to surprise me. So even though a lot of them are typical stereotypes of high-school life, they all were so unexpected than what you imagined.”
In fact, what Burstein does in American Teen is truly break down the classic stereotypes, by showing us different sides of all five kids. There are no heroes or villains—even Megan, the spoiled rich girl, will win you over by the end of the film, because as we learn more about why she is the way she is, we can't help but wish her success. Though the kids of American Teen will never be Breakfast Club BFFs—in fact, some of their paths never even cross during the film—the emotional issues they're facing feel timeless. They're all just teens trying to deal or, often, figuring out how not to, because most of us, when we're confronted with our first feelings of love or heartbreak, have no idea what to do.
There is a big difference between the real-life kids in American Teen and their past feature-film counterparts: technology. It's safe to say that if John Hughes shot The Breakfast Club today, his characters would spend more time texting than talking. E-mail, text messages and IM play important parts in this film, and when one girl sends a revealing phone-cam pic to a boy, it immediately gets sent around the school, bringing out the worst in some of Burstein's teens.
“It has a huge impact on their lives,” Burstein says. “And it only makes things more difficult for them. The cruelty is unbelievable, the way that rumors spread. Remember the game telephone? Imagine it now, with the Internet, and hundreds of kids all at once. Teens are complicated. They live a Lord of the Flies existence.”