Anyone who's survived their teenage years can probably recall one or two heart-wrenching or embarrassing moments that seemed unalterably life-scarring. I certainly remember an incident or two that still make me wince. But I can also smile and shrug now, too. Such is the benefit of time. With hindsight and years, there's perspective.
Documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein's teen subjects don't have much of that yet. Burstein says of American Teen, which debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, "It's really about being 17 and the pressures that you face from your peers. ... And then having to make these important decisions about your future while being completely ill-informed [and having to deal with] pressure from your parents to be a certain way."
The five real-life "stars" of the film (all seniors at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Ind.) represent the age-old adolescent caste system of cliques that's as firmly fixed as stars in the heavens: The Geek. The Popular Girl. The Jock. The Hunk. The Free Spirit. Even though some things have changed—cell phones make wrecking someone's reputation faster, nastier and easier than ever, for example—some things remain as they've been for several generations in American culture. Anyone who's ever seen The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls will feel echoes of those movies here.
Burstein's cameras have captured the stories of outwardly different teens. But, in reality, they're remarkable similar. And she makes sure we notice. As the film footage rolls, we discover that two primary pressures drive these teens' lives: the desire for love and fears about the future, specifically, where (or whether) they'll go to college.
If there's one word that captures the essence of American Teen, it's yearning. "I want to make movies that people will remember forever," says the rebelliously aspiring artist Hannah Bailey, "not just work a 9-to-5 s--- job and just die." Her mom, who struggles with bipolar disorder, doesn't think much of her daughter's goals and her desire to go to film school in San Francisco. "You're not going to get exactly what you want," Mom chides Hannah. "You're not special."
Jake Tusing, an acne-afflicted, self-identified "super geek," immerses himself in such video games as The Legend of Zelda but longs for a girlfriend: "I do love the ladies," he says, "but the ladies don't love me." Perhaps the most self-aware of all of Burstein's teens, Jake confesses, "My life sucks right now," and wonders, "What if it's even worse after high school?"
In contrast, Megan Krizmanich would never say her life "sucks." She's the high school's queen bee whose ruthless management of friends and adversaries would give Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf a serious run for her money. Without a trace of irony, she brags of her last year on the throne, saying, "I'll own the school. I've always owned the school." Of course, under the surface, Megan struggles to please her demanding, distant father ... and come to terms with her older sister's recent suicide.
Rounding out the main players are Colin Clemens and Mitch Reinholt. Colin is the crown prince of the basketball team in a town and state where the sport is practically worshipped. He seems to have what it takes to be a star—until his father's pressure to earn a college scholarship cripples his confidence and his playing. "You've got to get 12 rebounds the next game," Dad says not so helpfully. "Otherwise it's the Army."
Mitch, labeled by the moviemakers as the "heartthrob," enters and exits people's lives—and this pic—as he pleases, moving from one "interesting" girl to the next. His emotional experiment of the moment? Hannah.
Drama Queens ... and Kings
If yearning is what propels American Teen's subjects, drama—and lots of it—is the inevitable outcome. Early on, Hannah effervesces about her perfect boyfriend Joel. Then: tears and sobbing as she confides in a friend that "fooling around" progressed unexpectedly, and they "did it." Next: a spontaneous and unexpected breakup. Heartbroken and forlorn, Hannah skips weeks of school ("I don't want people to think I'm weak," she says) and slips into a debilitating depression in which she describes herself as a "completely worthless piece of s---." On the rebound, she connects with Mitch who momentarily looks past his place in the popular clique to see that Hannah has a lot of attractive qualities. The endgame? Suffice it say that their relationship doesn't end well, either.
If Hannah is the victim of unwanted hurt, Megan is the one who dishes it out to anyone who crosses her. When a classmate named Erica apparently sleeps with Megan's best guy friend, Geoff—and then sends him (and, oddly, another person) topless photos of herself—it's like dumping blood into a shark pool. A feeding frenzy of teenage brutality ensues as the photo (which we never see) is forwarded to virtually the entire school. Megan, playing the villainess to the hilt, leaves a cruel voice mail for Erica in which she growls, "Not only are you a slut, but you're also dumb. ... Your priest knows. Your parents know. Above all, God knows. You're sentenced to be a slut for the rest of your life. Amen." (Other girls also make ruthless, vulgar and extremely crude comments about Erica's picture.)
Megan similarly exacts vengeance on a junior student council member who changed the prom theme without her permission. Her retribution? Spray painting a crude drawing of the male anatomy and the word "fag" on a window at her rival's home. (Her dad comments that what she did was "stupid," but that getting caught was even "more stupid.")
For their part, the guys' struggles are no less significant. Just when Jake seems to find a girl who accepts him for who he is, she goes and makes out in a swimming pool (and in front of the camera) with another guy. Arguably, the film's edgiest moments reach the screen when Jake visits his brother in San Diego. Big Bro wants Jake to learn the ways of the world, and takes him to a wild bar in Tijuana where he gets drunk, gets a lap dance, and watches as a bumper sticker is plastered on a woman's bare chest. (Camera angles avoid any explicit nudity.)
An Undoctored Portrait
If you scan the news with any regularity, you're likely to see a study every other day that focuses on teen choices about sex, drugs, alcohol, bullying or the ways they're using new technology. American Teen puts faces and names to some of those trends. It's not preachy. It doesn't seem to have any strenuously exercised agenda. It's just matter of fact about lust and sex, partying and drinking, bullying and rejection. Sometimes it's a bit too matter of fact: At the Mexican nightclub and at a spin the bottle party we see two girls kiss. We also hear quite a bit of profanity, including two unbleeped uses of the f-word and several more that are partially censored.
Nanette Burstein doesn't sensationalize or glorify these students' choices, but neither does she give viewers a moral compass with which to align them. She says of her 10 months of filming the teens, "I don't judge them. Whatever they end up doing is their business—it's their life."
The result is a film that's educational but not especially instructive. It feels authentic and representative of what many teens today likely experience, but it is not designed to inspire any of us (teens or otherwise) to better behavior. And beyond a stray comment or two, it avoids entirely the subject of religious faith.
Parents, Promise, Paradox
One theme American Teen does illustrate powerfully is the influence parents have on their children. The dads and moms we see probably mean well, but onscreen they don't seem to understand how the pressure they're putting on their children is creating tremendous anxiety. Colin, especially, responds poorly to his father's admonitions to play better.
Likewise, even though Megan seems to have it all from an outsider's perspective, what she really wants is to please her father (never mind that she once calls him an "a--hole"). But he doesn't make it easy. When she tells him that she raised her SAT score by 70 points, he asks why she didn't raise it by 100.
On the other hand, Burstein makes sure we note that even imperfect parents can make a positive difference. Hannah's dad, who lives in another state, comes to visit her and to encourage her to go back to school in the wake of her painful breakup.
Whether these parents make good decisions or poor ones, it's painfully obvious how much these teens want their approval—and how important parental engagement and guidance is.
Perhaps even more than that, though, what American Teen accomplishes best is to capture, with an unblinking eye, the paradox and possibility of the late teen years. Hannah and Colin, Jake and Megan are shown to be simultaneously fragile and resilient. Hope and failure, longing and loneliness are their constant companions as they enter into a confusing season of transition between the end of childhood and their first tentative steps into the adult world.
The things it handles with less care are precisely the things our whole culture fails to do a good job of controlling: profanity, sexual preoccupations and social violence, most often of the verbal variety.
One final note about the nature of documentaries: Cameras have a way of changing the way we act, no matter how acclimated we think we've become to their presence. Along with a few other extreme things that happen onscreen, I just can't help but wonder if Megan would have been quite so ruthlessly mean to Erica if the cameras had not been in the room silently egging her on.