I imagine every generation of teenagers has believed they've had it harder than their parents did. It's par for the course when the smallest things seem life changing, when your social life feels pressurized, when you don't know what you want, and when your experiencing one first after another. Thus is the conflict within an Indiana high school in American Teen (2008).
The film kicks off on the first day of the school year where we're introduced to a cast of characters who initially seem painfully cliche. From the jock to the outsider to the princess - it's clear from the get-go that we're going to be in for a lot of angst. Still, there's something redeeming and unexpected about the approach.
Whether you're a teenager or not it's easy to get swept up in the drama. I remember the stress of trying to figure out where I wanted to go university, the torture of high school politics, and the arrogance and stubbornness that seemed to make daily life more complicated than it needed to be. American Teen isn't about hard hitting facts or specific problems, instead it's a fly-on-the-wall documentary about that awkward, raw, and emotional teenage experience as told by distinct (and suggestively average) cliques.
We're witness to the daily problems of each kid, who really have a lot more in common than any of them are willing to recognize. A highlight of the film is the unexpected romance between the high school pretty boy and the artsy chick with aspirations to go to the big city - a match up that is initially portrayed as never-in-a-million-years. Moments like this help to capture a slice of that feeling you had when you first realized that the world was bigger than you gave it credit for. Seeing each student grow out of their role (however marginal) is what gives this experiment and documentary some weight.
American Teen was filmed over an entire school year, which is impressive in itself, but it's almost a requirement just to escape the day-to-day gossip. At times the documentary feels too superficial, too focused on playing up forced drama, and I couldn't help but think that in the moment the subjects had to know the cameras were there capturing what they were doing. This is most obvious when a high school prank causes 'the princess' to lose her student council position. Who would actually do this knowing that it would be permanently showcased in a mainstream documentary?
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, American Teen's director, Nanette Burstein, was also an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary (feature length) for her 1999 film, On the Ropes which she co-directed with Brett Morgen.
In the same way the Hills or other MTV shows have failed at documenting 'actual' reality, American Teen walks a very fine line. I'm not convinced that everything we were shown was entirely truthful, but it's convenient. We want to see the artsy girl leave town, we want the jock to get his scholarship, we want the outsider to gain a bit more confidence, etc. and by showing this that youthful optimism is further emphasized and resonant. In this circumstance, I think that's crucial.
Being a teenager isn't easy, but as we get older it becomes almost comic in comparison to the responsibilites of our day to day lives. American Teen embodies a spectrum of 'frustrations' to show how real life and growing up begins to overshadow the soap opera, how there is a lot to figure out, and how before you know it you're out on your own. It would be interesting to see a follow up in a decade to see what's become of everyone. And, I guess that's the point of what I'm saying - it's fun to watch potential. 7/10