American Teen

American Teen


Reviewed by: The Exile

Like Frederick Wiseman’s High School reimagined for MTV, American Teen steals its poster art from The Breakfast Club and its faux-vérité style from The Hills. But the documentary’s director, Nanette Burstein (2002’s The Kid Stays In The Picture), is so far from Wiseman she’s not even on the same planet: collecting a group of high-school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana — only recognisable stereotypes need apply — she wires them up, fixes them with her camera and watches while they tear each other apart.

The movie earned Burstein the documentary directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, sending audiences into raptures with its tabloid intimacy and shallow characterisations. It’s not hard to see why: in a culture saturated with the heartless voyeurism of reality television and the endless self-exposure of MySpace and YouTube, natural teenage narcissism has been fanned to sociopathic levels of self-involvement and immodesty. Burstein may only have been looking for five youngsters willing to bare their most private impulses, but she probably found a schoolful of them. What she didn’t find was anyone willing to examine the damage these impulses might have wrought.

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Conforming to preordained labels is the kids’ job, and each seems to know what their director wants. So we have Megan, the popular princess; Colin, the basketball jock; Mitch, the amiable hunk; Jake, the band nerd and Hannah, the supersensitive artist. Burstein filmed them for a year before molding her footage into narrative arcs so contrived they might as well have been scripted. Highlighting the sensational at every turn, she glides over issues of class, parenting, academic or external pressures with blithe disregard for the forces that shape behaviour.

So when Megan institutes a campaign of humiliation against a former friend and commits an act of vulgar vandalism against a rival for school council, the movie focuses on her gloating viciousness without inspecting the cocoon of privilege and family tragedy in which it incubated. And when Hannah is cruelly dumped by her boyfriend of two years — the day after she has sex with him for the first time — the camera clings to her heartbroken face as she suffers a near-breakdown and is unable to return to school. Like a succubus, Burstein simply attaches herself to the teens’ volatile emotions; it never seems to occur to her to pull back and examine a larger, more nuanced canvas.

Sadly her manipulation isn’t limited to editing. Hannah’s dumping occurs to a plaintive rendition of Cat Stevens’ Trouble and when geeky, acne-challenged Jake finally gets a date the soundtrack burbles with John Paul Young’s Love Is In The Air. The film is certainly exploitative, but so are any number of better documentaries, and it’s hard to fault Burstein for insinuating herself so completely into the kids’ lives. What is unforgivable is her neglect of wonderful opportunities to dig deeper beneath the skin. Noting Jake’s obsession with videogames, she glides over his violent revenge fantasies when “the band stud” makes a successful play for Jake’s girlfriend. “I’m afraid of who I am,” says Jake, and the camera quickly moves on to another scene as though terrified of what further questioning might reveal.

“I really didn’t set out to have archetypes from all these groups, to have the ‘queen bee’ and the ‘math nerd,’” Burstein has said in interviews. But as her hubristic title demonstrates (the movie should really called Some White, Small-Town American Teens), Burstein has focused on little else. Parents and teachers are rarely seen, except to apply academic or economic pressure (win a basketball scholarship or you’re going into the Army), and values remain stubbornly unexamined.

The kids themselves have become willing accomplices to their own marketing, appearing onstage at screenings to announce they’re open to acting careers. All in all, American Teen is as queasily entertaining as an episode of A&E’s Intervention: you’ll want to watch, but you may not respect yourself in the morning.

Reviewed on: 03 Sep 2008
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The kids are not all right.
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Director: Nanette Burstein

Writer: Nanette Burstein

Year: 2008

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: US

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