April 30, 2008

On the Horizon: American Teen

Paramount/Vintage and A & E Indie Films present American Teen, a new documentary by Academy Award-nominated director Nanette Burnstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture).

In my opinion, the trailer does not do justice to either the hilarious comedy or the touching drama in American Teen, a phenomenal film that bursts with emotion. Burnstein impressively captures all the best and worst aspects of high school life as she follows four students (looks like five, but I say four) through their senior year at Warsaw (IN) Community High School. Not having seen the MTV shows to which American Teen has been compared, I can only say this was a lot better than I expected it could be.

Buzz about the film (and its Breafast Club-inspired poster) is picking up significantly as it travels the festival circuit, and I was fortunate to attend a screening followed by a Q & A with Nanette Burnstein (who won the 2008 Directing Award at Sundance for American Teen). She explained her decision to choose a film in the Midwest that was socioeconomically mixed, and especially one that existed as the only one in the area, thus serving as better "social pressure cooker" in which no one could "get lost." She went on to talk for about 15 minutes on everything from her filmmaking methods, to early criticism of the film (comparing it to "Laguna Beach"), to her own high school years in Buffalo, NY.

"I felt like I was back in high school," said Burnstein about her experience in Warsaw. Me too - and I actually liked it. I haven't laughed like that since The King of Kong, and...I'll admit that I almost became emotional at one point. Maybe it was the sugar from my snacks kicking in. Yeah, that must have been it.

Judge for yourself and find my full review when American Teen opens on July 25th.


  1. I hope you're right about this one Daniel. You're right that the trailer doesn't do much to inspire confidence, but I like the idea and some of the things I've heard about it.

    Plus, Jeff Wells got booted from it 15 minutes in at Sundance, and he still panned it. Jerk.

    Anyway, I'll be keeping my eye out for it.

  2. I saw the trailer and loved it. I'll be first in line.

  3. It's an interesting situation. I don't really know how best to market this, but Paramount's obviously shooting for the current student population. I'm not on Facebook so I don't know how these things work, but that's one of their main strategies, combined with the jumpy trailer. I don't expect Wells would have found much to love about it even if he'd seen it. You kind of have to have a heart in order to find something heartwarming.

    The good thing about the trailer, if there is one, is that it doesn't show any of the funniest parts - or any of the really moving parts, and they're definitely there.

    Just take in the last 10 seconds of it. That (actually sad) scene is a good example of the awkwardness and humor that Burnstein perfectly captures as a fly on the wall. I wasn't any of those five broad characters in high school, but I definitely knew them.

    Unrelated - the parents (who are much more present in the film than in the trailer) haven't even seen American Teen yet. Somebody in the audience quipped that they wouldn't want to be Burnstein in that room when it's shown...

  4. I cannot wait to see this, even if I know I will have to wait forever.

  5. I have a lot of hesitations about this movie. I felt like the trailer made it look extremely cheesy and cliche. But, if the trailer is misleading, as you say it is, then maybe I'll have to give this one a chance.

  6. I wonder how it will compare to your experience right now, Nick. Looking forward to finding out.

    Justin, feel free to hold on to your hesitations - it's always better to go in skeptical and come out surprised. It probably is cliched for those who are either of the demographic or more familiar with all the high school-themed TV shows than I am, but I was pretty impressed.

  7. When does it come out? Also, it's always ok to cry. Especially for teen movies.

  8. Haha, right Sam. Believe it or not I was actually able to hold back the tears, though they could have come from laughing as much as anything else. July 25th is when you can truly ridicule my emotions...

  9. I bet it will make me sick because I still have to wait a year to leave school. I bet I'll be really jealous.

  10. Excuse me for eavesdropping but I couldn't help but overhear.

    What exactly happens on July 25th?


  11. Hmm, I may have to emphasize the release date in the next one as it continues to be overlooked. :-P

    You're never eavesdropping, Miranda. All discussion here is open to the wide world.

    I think you'll be just fine, Nick. There isn't much to be jealous about from the subjects in AT...

  12. Oh yeah, It was right there at the end. Thanks. I'm definitely going to see it.

  13. I got to see this at the Nashville Film Festival, and really enjoyed it.

    It did raise some questions about how documentaries like this are made, though. How do the filmers get into these situations and trying to film people candidly make for a self-fulfilling prophecy?

    I really need to study the art of documentary film more.

  14. I saw this film at the Phoenix Film Festival and it's damn good. It really makes you re-live your high schools days whether they were fun or painful.

  15. Thanks for stopping by, Joseph (Cinexcellence) and Mikey (Spaghetti Sauce and Sweet Peas).

    Glad to hear positive reactions from your festival screenings as well. Yeah, Mikey, it's definitely a film that should be relatable to most people who went to an American high school, especially one similar to Warsaw.

    Joseph, it's interesting you mention that because Nanette Burnstein spoke at some length about her methods, and it was really interesting to hear. After a very lengthy interview process she selected about 10 students, and spent two weeks just hanging out with them, not even filming. Then, gradually, she started to shoot each of them in their daily lives, and after a few months narrowed it down to these five, who she continued to follow for the rest of the year. At the beginning she just had a three person crew before adding a second unit for filming purposes. It's hard to believe, but she claims that the students acted out a lot more when they weren't being filmed, and incredibly, only one scene was reenacted (and it's a trivial one).

    Anyway, I learned a lot from hearing her talk about the process, and it shows that she was really hands off with the whole thing. Nothing feels set up or contrived, as ridiculous as some of it is.



    Some of my fav songs are in the soundtrack, including Cat Stevens "Trouble" which was also in "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," as well as tracks by Frou Frou, the Ting Tings and The New Pornographers. I will faint any moment now.

    You lucky bastard. Sorry, but dude. I want to steal your life.

  17. Haha, in due time, Nick. I didn't even remember the soundtrack, to be honest with you. I do like the song playing in the trailer, though.

    OK, steal my life now, but I get yours in 10 years. Deal!


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