Now that John Hughes (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, etc.) has left the cinematic building, the everyday humiliations of adolescent life have been appropriated by Disney musicals and sexed-up teen comedies inspired by American Pie. Where are the working-class misfits struggling to find their way? How about the jock who's forced to reconsider his worldview? No one would suggest that Hughes' angst-filled '80s canon was authentic to the teen experience, but it did tap into the emotionally real and hormonally charged traumas of teenage social awkwardness and self-doubt.
Enter documentarian Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture), who tries to capture the complex, real-life dramas of America's heartland adolescent. And while there's much to criticize about her yearlong chronicle of Indiana high school seniors, American Teen finds enough genuineness and entertainment to be recommended.
Burstein follows a large group of senior-year teens in Warsaw, Ind., focusing mainly on five kids, capturing their insecurities, dramas and cruelties in full bloom. Among the more popular kids, there's queen bee Megan Krizmanich, a privileged and pretty blonde with a mean streak and tragic backstory. There's also Colin Clemens, the school's affable star basketball player whose chances for a much-needed college scholarship become endangered by his overbearing dad (an Elvis impersonator, of all things). On the social flipside, band geek Jake Tusing fights severe acne and social ineptitude to land a girlfriend while Hannah Bailey, a creative and rebellious outsider, struggles to keep depression and boys at bay in order to pursue her film-school dreams. The link between these two social cliques is Mitch Reinholt, a sincerely likable (and Hollywood handsome) basketball player, who dates Hannah but worries about her impact on his social standing.
Assorted schoolmates make cameos to good effect and the school year is, predictably, an emotional rollercoaster for the five. Burstein captures some raw and intriguing moments, the best of which, oddly enough, are provided by the kids' parents. Whether it's Megan's dad chastising her, not for perpetrating, but for getting caught pulling a mean-spirited prank or Hannah's unstable mother making callously unsupportive statements, the kids struggle as much with parental pressure as with each other. It's this familial context that elevates American Teen from the long list of reality TV shows treading similar terrain — but not by much.
While Burstein is expert at painting an engaging portrait of each teen and being present for some suspiciously fortuitous moments, her treatment isn't any more penetrating than MTV's The Real World and often feels equally staged. Except for a text-message sequence that was, indeed, re-created, this last charge may not be entirely Burstein's fault. Raised on a culture of YouTube and reality TV, many teens come readymade for the camera, all too aware of their telegenic moments. As a result American Teen's few unvarnished moments of truth often involve confrontations with their less aware parents.
The movie is also strangely absent the sex, drugs, hip hop-rock 'n' roll and psychological neuroses that are typically associated with modern high schoolers. Where are the potheads, blow job queens and bulimics that news magazines hysterically report on every few months? For that matter, where are the MySpace and Facebook subcultures? If not for text messaging and the occasional Xbox game, you'd think Warsaw was caught in a '70s Brady Bunch time warp.
Worse, Burstein's already slick approach to the doc crosses the line with computer-animated sequences that express the inner dreams of each teenager. Aside for being intrusive and cheesy, they compromise the real-world integrity of her subjects, making clear that the documentary is as much a manufactured product as American Idol or Big Brother.
Where American Teen ultimately succeeds is in capturing the incredible doubt, awkwardness and anxiety that defines adolescence. No matter which teen you identify with, it's likely you'll find pangs of recognition. For all their playing to the camera, there's no denying that, in the end, these kids are real. And, personally, I'll take Hannah Bailey over Molly Ringwald any day of the week.
Showing at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].