By turns engaging and surprisingly candid and absolutely infuriating and disappointing, American Teen look at the lives of four Indiana high school students, charting their course through their senior year, navigating its turbulent social waters and preparing for what may lay beyond its confines after graduation.
Director Nanette Burstein has chosen as her main subjects four teens who seem ready made to be plugged into a 1980s John Hughes movie, an idea hammered home by the film’s aping of the promotional poster for The Breakfast Club for its own advertising. There’s the bitchy, spoiled cheerleader, the socially awkward band nerd, the star basketball player driven to success by an overbearing father and the artsy, rebellious girl who dreams of ditching as soon as possible the small Indiana town where they all live. A fifth senior, the lothario of his class, is also followed, though his story is secondary to the main quartet.
Sure, these are stereotypes, but Burstein manages to find depth beyond their surface appearances. The result is a film that manages to simultaneously reinforce the notion that certain clichés exist in high school while at the same time exploding those clichés.
At various points of the film, each of the four teens expresses a vulnerability to the camera that they seem to hide from everyone else, including their closest friends and family members. They are worried about what the future may hold or of ultimately being hurt by a relationship that seems too good to be true. These are the fears that virtually all of us shared at that age and, if they could see past the fellow subjects’ surface differences, they would find that they have more in common than they realize.
While the film does show that much of what teens experience today is the same that generations previously have gone through, it subtextually does raise an interesting question. Are we to infer that a generation weaned on MTV’s Real World and other reality show fodder is only able to open themselves up in the presence of a camera, as the star of their own reality television series? It would probably be a disservice to make such a blanket statement about the teens profiled here, but, there is at least one of the four who could be accused of being very aware of when the camera is on them.
Unfortunately, American Teen sometimes feels a bit too slick for its own good. The film is glossily shot. Artfully composed, the film contains plenty of coverage, cutting back and forth between the various teens in each scene in a manner that recalls techniques commonly used in fiction films as opposed to documentaries. (I also can not recall a single shot where one glimpses a second camera accidentally in the background as one would expect.) Such stylized coverage of its subjects tempts the thought that some shots in the film may be recreated. Whether she did or not is beside the point, such nagging doubts undermine what she is trying to achieve.
It is during several of these scenes that the film gives us long, beautifully composed shots of the teens sitting somewhere, staring moodily into the middle distance while mopey pop music plays on the soundtrack. However, these production values don’t help impart anything extra to our understanding of the characters. Instead, they drag the film down to the level on a teen drama on the CW Network, pandering to a hoped for teen audience.
It is a shame that Burstein chose this path, as it hints at a possible lack of confidence in the material. And there is no need to try and dress up the material as her subjects are relatable all on their own, without the unnecessary side trips into Dawson’s Creek territory.