August 2, 2008

REVIEW: American Teen (A)

Background: Although I first heard about American Teen after it premiered at Sundance in January, it wasn't until Craig Kennedy blurbed about it later in the spring that it landed on my radar for good. When I noticed it was on the schedule for a director-present screening at the MSPIFF, it was a must-see (you can read more about Nanette Burnstein's experience making the film in my preview). Going into it I expected little more than a prolonged episode of some trashy MTV show. Now? Let's just say my negative opinion of those shows is even more pronounced after seeing that teens can actually be documented in a thoughtful way.

Synopsis : Burnstein covers a year in the life of four high school seniors in Warsaw, IN. Hannah is the dropout risk who considers her last year a prison sentence; she wants to leave Warsaw immediately. Colin is under pressure to earn a basketball scholarship. His dad is an Elvis impersonator who tells Colin that it's either college or the Army. Megan is a spoiled princess, the popular girl, who terrorizes classmates and plans her future at Notre Dame. Jake is the stereotypical lovelorn geek, obsessed with video games but awkward in social situations. Mitch, a fifth subject that is mostly thrown in as a love interest for Hannah (and to round out the Breakfast Club poster rip-off), is the cool jock that can't quite be trusted. Where will they all end up by graduation?

I Loved:
+ The animated Notre Dame-as-utopia sequence. No offense to the many Notre Dame alumni that I consider friends, but you all deserve that!
+ The genuinely emotional moments, such as Hannah's conversations with her parents.
+ The really hilarious moments of social awkwardness.
Poor Jake.

I Liked:
+ The epilogues, which added one more layer to our relationship with the film's subjects.
+ That teachers and school administrators weren't included as supporting players. The focus was on the right place: the teens.
+ The comforting realization that the American high school experience is so similar from place to place.

I Disliked:
- The horrifying realization that the American high school experience is so similar from place to place.
- When the use of animated sequences distracted from or trivialized the real world situations.

I Hated:
- The maliciousness celebrated by Megan and her gang, reminiscent of a documentary adaptation of Mean Girls.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 29/30= 97% = A

Last Word: American Teen is a very easy film to criticize. It doesn't tell a new story, it furthers all the typical stereotypes of American high school students, it smacks of reality TV and it doesn't wrap everything up in a nice, neat message-laden ending. So what? It's hilarious, moving, relevant, and honest, despite the accusations that it may not be. In fact, at the screening I attended Nanette Burnstein said the students actually dialed down their behavior when the cameras weren't rolling, and that the only scene recreated was when Hannah received the text message from Mitch.

In any case, part of me wants to argue that this debate is actually meaningless. American Teen is not an investigation on the war in Iraq or a historical record of a controversial incident. It's simply a contemporary glimpse (and it's only a glimpse) at the challenges facing most teens in America today: developing romances, college choices, "fitting in", family relationships, independence, etc. Nothing new, of course, but maybe that's the point: these issues are just as important to teens in 2008 as they were in 1958. Isn't that fact something to reflect on in and of itself?

I enjoy documentaries like American Teen because they have the potential to unite people. In the case of this film, we come together to look back and collectively laugh at the trivial nature of high school, at the naive sense of urgency that made us think those four years were so important, and at the countless ways in which we tried to make ourselves "different" while somehow still fitting in to the right social groups.

It turns out that, as American Teen amusingly demonstrates, we have a lot more in common with each other - both now and then - than we would like to admit. The American public high school experience is one of the great equalizers in life. Most of us went through the wringer and made it out alive on the other side, and whatever we ended up doing in the years since then, that little bubble of time remains a shared pot from which we can still draw some common insights and perspectives.

Spoken like a näive
high school student, right? Forgive me - American Teen successfully reawakened that idealistic spirit in me.


  1. Yeah, I'm still willing and waiting to see this!

  2. So am I! For you to see it, I mean. Guess it might be a while, though..

  3. I was offered a press screening of this and an interview with the director months ago, but sadly couldn't make it. I'm still really looking forward to it.

  4. Wow. That was a wicked extensive review. I really enjoyed it.

  5. I swear to God that if I see this available at one of those dodgy download places, I will download it. And just to make up for it, I'll buy a ticket for it when it opens in SA eventually.

  6. Daniel, your real passion for this film shines through and I completely agree with just about everything you say. I kinda liked the animated sequences, even if they weren't truly integrated--it gve the film another artistic dimension that helped to accentuate the conventional narrative.
    But everything about your review--including that nifty disclaimer that we have all seen the likes of it before--but it still works in spite of itself--seems dead-on.
    And I notice you broke out the top-grade there! Good for you.

  7. I remember that, Joseph, and I saw you've had some nice posts on it as well.

    That would have been nice, Matthew, but I wonder how much Burnstein could have said in an interview that she hasn't already. You'd have to come up with some great questions! I look forward to your review.

    Thanks a lot, blakecgriffin, and for stopping by. Welcome to LAMB as well!

    Nick I kind of thought you had done that already, or at least were planning on it...

    I appreciate the kind words, Sam, especially as I know it didn't hit home quite as much for you (only based on your star rating) and others. I've got no problem with people looking past it as just another doc, but I will take issue with those who compare it to "The Hills" or "Laguna Beach" or any of those other shows that, admittedly, I've actually never sat down and watched. But still...

  8. Hmm, I haven't been in the mood for an indie in a minute, with the last being The Fall.

    I may have to check this one out.

  9. Well, DCGirl, the summer indie scene overall has almost been as questionable as the blockbuster scene. But documentaries? Bunch of good ones, like AT.

  10. Funny Daniel that my mention of it helped it onto your radar because it was your championing of it that made me eager to see it. I would've no matter what because I'm in no position to pass up press screenings, but still. I was primed for it thanks to you.

    In the end, I liked it somewhat less than you, but I still liked it.

    The epilogues indeed sold me on it finally. Hannah and Jake were enough for me to like it, but I felt the epilogue even offered Megan some (probably deserved) redemption. I like to think that she wasn't as horrible as she seemed, or if she was that she grew out of it a little bit.

  11. I like to think that about Megan, too, but...well, there's good in everybody, right?

    I hope so...

  12. I loved it. It was startlingly similar to my own high school experience... I'm thinking that factor is what might make this film a success.

    I want to be friends with Hannah in real life.

  13. Awesome, re:your own experience. It's kind of silly that the trailer asks "WHICH ONE WERE YOU?". Well, none of them, just like every other student on the sideline in AT. But the point is that you RECOGNIZE all of them.

    Hannah is definitely the hero. At the screening, Burnstein said they became really close and spent a lot of time together afterwards, and now Hannah is a film student in NYC (I think that might have been in the epilogue, but can't remember).

  14. Hannah ruled, Nayana.

    I also liked Jake because, even though he was a geek, he still tried. He'd get turned down and he'd try again.

    I was the kid in school who never tried so I admire Jake for that.

    Not to sell Colin and Mitch short, they seemed like good kids, but as I've said elsewhere I didn't identify with them as much.

  15. What amazed me about Jake was that as much as he talked himself down or made observations about much of a "loser" he was, his self-esteem was really pretty high. I would even say he was the most self-assured and optimistic of the whole bunch. Great kid.

  16. Between this and an article I just read in EW, I'm dying to see this now. If we head out tonight or tomorrow, I'm sure we'll see it.

  17. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. I've gushed about it since the festival and I know most reviews have been positive, but it's always interesting to see what a trusted source thinks.

  18. Seems as though Burnstein is trying to mold Hannah into a little version of herself.

    Couldn't disagree much more about Jake. I wanted to root for him, but found it nearly impossible. What could a girl possibly see in him? He wanted a date/girlfriend for all the wrong reasons, and didn't treat them any better than he might treat his game controller (if not worse).

    I enjoyed AT, but again think you're way too forgiving with your doc scores (I'm gonna have to search your archives to see if you've given one less than a B+ in the last year... ;) ). This was a B to me - fun to look at and remember, but that lack of story to tell (it being only a glimpse) hurts its significance greatly.

  19. Ok, I found some (Where in the World is Osama bin Laden got a C+ and Gonzo got a B). I feel better now. :)

  20. Hey now, I actually gave Bin Laden a C-! And don't forget Chicago 10 (B), and At the Death House Door, Traces of the Trade, and The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez, none of which would have received higher than a straight B had I graded them normally.

    But you're right - most everything else is an A, haha...

    Thanks for checking back in about AT. No doubt that Burnstein let herself grow a little too close to Hannah - she admitted as much in the Q & A.

    I don't think it did too much damage, however, and I don't know if a lack of a real story was a problem. I think it being only a glimpse was actually the whole point: here's teenage life in America in 2008, deal with it. Focusing on some kind of narrative may have led it down the path of The Hills or some reality show where we're supposed to really "care" about these people. I don't think we were supposed to care about these subjects so much as were supposed to identify them, observe them, relate their experiences to our own.

    But you enjoyed it, and that's maybe all that matters in this case. I don't think it's going to win an Oscar or anything, especially not with the competition this year (speaking of which, that also speaks to the high grades...maybe...).

    Regarding Jake - I think it's a little harsh to say he doesn't know how to treat a girl right. Sure a girlfriend may have been a status symbol (or video game fantasy) in his head, but isn't that kind of how it is in high school sometimes? Beyond that, though, I think he learned from the freshman girl that holding hands isn't what relationships are about. It seemed to me that at least matured a little bit in his second "relationship", as quick as it was.

  21. "It seemed to me that at least matured a little bit in his second "relationship", as quick as it was."

    You mean the girl that he called a loser ("But it's okay - I called myself one, too!")?

    I was wondering why the girl that he picked up from the airport liked him at all? Between the face on the table with the freshman, the lack of any sort of conversations/shared interests and his general apathy towards them (outside of attaining them, which I think it's fair to say was influenced by the cameras), I just don't see anything appealing about him.

    Keep in mind - though he looked younger for sure - he was nearly 17/18 the whole time. Inexperienced as he might have been, that's three years too old to be so naive and immature. Compare him to Mitch (if possible) and the differences become all the more glaring.

  22. Touché, my friend, seriously. You've just about convinced me that Jake was actually a mean, immature creep. All I can say is that I still think he was more "likable" than Mitch, and that he seemed to handle the odds stacked against him fairly well. Too many kids in his situation have gone off the deep end.


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