The press info on the film has lines that remind me of the loudspeaker in M*A*S*H giving plots to morale boosting films in Korea. "Documentary follows the lives of four teenagers in one small town in Indiana....We see the insecurities, the cliques, the jealousies, the first loves and heartbreaks, and the struggle to make profound decisions about the future." Isn't that what everyone remembers about high school-all those damn profound decisions about the future? If we only knew then that events and not agonizing decisions sweep us along in life, we could have had more time for beer and sex.
It's senior year in a Midwest high school. There will be cruelty, humor, strangeness, scary moments, more talk of sex than actual sex, a dash of drinking, and a pinch of smoking. Yeah, some things never change. But a funny thing happened on the way to gym class. I ran across real people who could somehow carry on with their lives, perhaps not quietly but at times with desperation, and pay little attention to microphones and technicians and cameras. That is one thing that has changed in today's world: everyone is on camera; everyone is on the web.
The editing and the directing, although it's odd referring to a documentary as having a director, are very polished. Burstein always seems to always be in control of the scene; always framing it to the best advantage to the plot. The technical and logistical accomplishments of this film surprised and delighted me.
Even with cameras in their faces for 10 months or maybe because of it, honesty got through. Intimacy seems real. When Jake says, "I do love the ladies but the ladies do not love me...They avoid me at all costs," it hurt. He said it with pain but with open, frank awareness. He saw where he was and the dark hole that might keep him prisoner his whole life. And when beautiful, popular and privileged Megan bemoans her misunderstood plight, "Everyone thinks my life is perfect," I want to slap her and scream, "That's because it is! Hey, you could be a single mother waiting tables at a truck stop in Barstow."
Do lonely, geeky people remain lonely? Do popular people remain popular with things and other people coming easy to them? I know that in high school, at a time of infinite possibilities, most of us feel hopeless and trapped. Maybe we could see these characters again in 7 or 10 years.
The film isn't perfect, but neither is high school. Have hope. Or in the words of those long-ago philosopher kings, The Monkeys, "Cheer up, sleepy Jean, oh what can it mean to a daydream believer and a home coming queen?"
American Teen ★★★✩✩
Directed by Nanette Burstein<p>PG-13
I survived high school. I didn't know anything about American Teen, but with that title I was hoping Kristen Bell had a lead role. Somebody should have warned me. I hate documentaries. It's a character flaw. I hate self-awareness books; and of course high school is self-awareness on steroids around every locker-lined hallway and family dinner crisis. I don't like animation and this film has flotsam and jetsam of animation sprinkled about. Even with all that going against it and without Kristen Bell or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I liked Nanette Burstein's slick movie of high school angst. It was interesting. It was entertaining, maybe a bit enlightening and a trifle compelling at times. Some of the scenes and relationships seemed forced or even scripted, but so does my life at times. I'm always calling for rewrites and a stand-in.