Thursday, 5 November 2015

American Teen

Title:  American Teen
Director: Nanette Burstein
Released: 2008
Plot: Documentary following five students from different social groups through their final school year

Seemingly based on “The Breakfast Club” idea of high school hierocracy the documentary looks at five students, each belonging to a different social group while following them through their final year of school as they deal with various issues such as dating and falling out with friends all while trying to figure out what they want to do after school. The documentary switching between its five subjects which include
  • Hannah AKA the “Rebel” – A self-confessed outsider thanks to her liberal views which don’t tend to go down to well in the small-town conservative culture of Warsaw. She distracts herself with her art, music and writing while dreaming of leaving for San Francisco to work in films.
  • Colin AKA the “Jock” – Star of the school basketball team, he is looking to impress the visiting college scouts in order to get a scholarship for college.
  • Megan AKA the “Princess” – The most popular student and queen bee, who aims to follow in her family legacy by getting into the University of Notre Dame, while more than willing to do anything to maintain her position in the social order.
  • Mitch AKA the “Heartthrob  - One of the popular kids and a teammate of Colin’s on the basketball team.
  • Jake AKA the “Geek” – the bottom of the social pile Jake’s prefers to loose himself in video games and the school band, while his introverted nature means he finds it difficult to make friends. His main goal is to find a date for prom or at least a girlfriend.
Directed by Nanette Burstein whose no doubt best known for directing the boxing documentary “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture” which charted the life and career of film producer Robert Evans. Here though she casts her net in a pretty wide sweep as she attempts to craft a picture of final year students at school, while attempting to avoid the usual pitfalls of just focusing on the popular kids which as someone who school life saw them spending their time lurking in the no man’s land between being popular and the bottom of the social pile, I can assure you that school was far from the happiest of times which most of these documentaries like to proclaim.
Originally Burstein reviewed  more than 100 potential schools for the film of which 10 agreed to participate and which after interviewing seniors at these school, ultimately decided on Warsaw Community High school in Warsaw, Indianna which has the distinction of being the “Orthopaedic Capital of the World” and seemingly little else. This certainly gives it an interesting angle in how eager the subjects are to escape the quiet town life.
Each of the segments is led solely by their subjects as they go about their hobbies or general day to day school life. Hannah comes off especially well with this technique especially with her outspoken nature with Jake coming a close second even if his sections were he’s addressing the camera directly tend to drift into romantic fantasies.  Megan on the other hand largely ignores the camera and generally acts like she is in her own episode of “The Hills” outside of a segment in the third quarter were she talks about her older sister who committed suicide in a rare moment of vulnerability especially when she’s spent most of the documentary seemingly not caring what affect her actions have on anyone unless it in some way benefits her, as she spray paints the word “Fag” on a rival’s house after they overulled her idea for prom while making sure that she e-mail’s the whole school an ill-advised topless selfie sent to her by mistake. Colin meanwhile comes off as an uncharismatic oaf who showboating attitude is currently leading the school’s basketball team into its worse season ever. Perhaps because of this the majority of his footage is kept to him playing, or hanging around his Elvis impersonator dad who is keen to see his son enlisted in the Army rather than resting on his skills as a basketball player.
The real draw here through are ironically the least popular kids in school, with Hannah trying to find her place as she defiantly walks her own line, while coming close to failing the year after skipping school following a break up with her long term boyfriend.  Jake equally makes for an engaging subject as he goes through his own series of failed attempts at romance which are almost as crushing to watch as they are for him to endure, so when he is taken on a drunken bender with his brother you can’t help but root for him finally having something work out well for him.
Unquestionably due to covering these major groups the end result is a slightly disjointed ride with certain subjects coming off better than others, while Mitch really comes off as an afterthought seeing how he is the least featured of the five with his only real presence in the film coming from the brief and surprising relationship he has with Hannah, before becoming arguably the worst person in the film when he breaks up with her via text message.  This lack of footage only makes it less surprising that he was left of some posters for this film.  At the same time the film has come under criticism of being staged, though I couldn’t personally tell and to be honest you’re more likely to see faker footage on reality TV than you see here. Yes it is perhaps overly dramatic is places but then wasn’t school always this way.
A flawed documentary with its mishmash of footage and hit and miss subjects, its occasional great moments tend to get lost along the way, while its animated sections prove to be more of a distraction than adding anything to the film. Ultimately its hard to see what Burstein was aiming to achieve with this documentary, especially when it plays out exactly how you'd expect it to with the rich kids and jocks get what they want, while the geeks and outsiders only get to find themselves when they escape the confines of school. Still if you want to see your school days played out with modern teens then this might be the film for you, only just don't expect any big answers as this film certainly doesn't have any.

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