Sundance Review: American Teen
by Alex Billington
January 25, 2008
When it comes to documentaries, it takes a lot to impress and even more to entertain me. Thankfully American Teen did both - it was often hilarious, even at parts I'm sure I wasn't support to laugh; it brought out intense emotions, including frustration and sadness; and got me thinking about our society implications more than any other movie in the last few years. This is a brilliant documentary that explores the American high school system in an unforgettable way.
American Teen follows four high school seniors throughout their last year at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana. There is the popular "queen bee" girl who is involved in everything from student council to prom (Megan); the band geek "loser" guy who can't get a girl for the life of him (Jake); the rebellious and artsy, filmmaker-wanna-be girl with endless guy problems (Hannah); and the all-star basketball player jock that the entire town relies on for sports success (Colin). Over one year at WCHS, they encounter every kind of social issue imaginable, from sex to drinking to insecurities to relationship troubles to college applications. It's these four very human, very real stories that make up one of the most shockingly realistic documentaries you'll ever see.
Of course a documentary is realistic, but what I mean by shockingly realistic is that these people are real people sharing real stories with all of us. In Hollywood, we usually see a glorified imagined high school experience in movies, and it's not even remotely the same compared to the real world. In American Teen, they show everyone what the real experience is like, and for some, it could be eye opening. These four teens go through a very tragic experience of their own, and for a while I was getting depressed by seeing them all on that path. But in the end they come out on top, and that's what this story is about - how much can happen in just one year's time in high school.
What American Teen became for me was less of a film to sit back and enjoy, and more of a film that my mind got intricately involved in. I was sitting there thinking about so many different social aspects non-stop, usually saying "come on" when the loser kid just wouldn't even try, or "are you serious" when the popular girl would say the most ridiculous things. This is when my frustration began to brew, and I'll admit that only the best of the best can really get me that riled up.
I often wondered if the people in this or other people who will see it understood that everything that happened was a socially over exaggerated situation that American Teen as a documentary was playing at. I can see people watching this just accepting what's happening as typical and looking at this as sort of an "inside look" at American high school. Instead, what I really took away was more the idea that this is happening in high schools and with teens and that it's something people (parents or others) should note because these are four, possibly bad, examples of people over exaggerating their social situation.
The only bone I have to pick with American Teen is about the animated scenes that were added. The first one, made to stylistically tell about the loser guy's aspirations and dreams, seemed fitting. But the other three seemed to only be there to balance it out, and easily could've been removed. The film was great on its own without these weird animation sequences, so I'm not sure why Burstein decided to include them.
If you care about real people and want to take a peek at Nanette Burstein's brilliantly captured look at the world of American high schools, then American Teen needs to be on the top of your list. This is a fascinating film that even I overly enjoyed and is well worth your own time and interest.