Has reality TV ruined the movie documentary? Watching American Teen makes one wonder. Nanette Burstein's new documentary was supposed to conjure the "types" of high school characters from 1985's The Breakfast Club, but instead it looks more like the cast from MTV's "The Hills."
Like LC's L.A. clique, we're a culture that's become so comfortable in front of the camera, of living a life observed by everyone else, that it's warped our so-called realities into performances.
American Teen's high schoolers know as much, and fall naturally into their roles: the princess Megan, the jock Colin, the geek Jake, the heartthrob Mitch and the rebel Hannah. Under Burstein's manipulative lens (and even craftier editing), the seniors from Indiana's Warsaw High School perform as dutifully as any acting ensemble – brooding, snarling, flirting, laughing, crying. Lots of crying. With friends like these, who needs Molly Ringwald?
Burstein seizes on the opportunity, and through her narrative layout tries to teach us a lesson about the pressures of high school, from grades to sex, but also about the labels we place on teens. The irony is, we already learned this from the aforementioned John Hughes comedy, and American Teen feels no less artificial. It's a minor miracle that the "cast members" emerge as real people in spite of Burstein's machinations.
Burstein knows her way around artifice. Her 2002 collaboration with Brett Morgen, The Kid Stays in the Picture, was a vivid adaptation of Robert Evans' autobiography in which the narcissistic Hollywood producer told his life story often through whimsical animation. (Their 1998 boxing documentary, On the Ropes, was an Oscar nominee.) She employs similar animation techniques in American Teen, all in tune with her characters' fantasies. For the nerdy, lovelorn Jake, Burstein realizes his dreams through his favorite medium: his treasured The Legend of Zelda video game. In Burstein's game version, Jake becomes a conquering hero and wins his prized princess. It's an entertaining approach but does nothing to deepen understanding of Jake. If anything, it makes him seem more cartoonlike, not less.
Elsewhere, scenes feel wholly contrived, to the point of suspecting that certain "plot lines" – such as an out-of-nowhere romance between popular Mitch and outsider Hannah – were Bravo-like orchestrations from the filmmaker.
And yet there's some uncompromising reality in the documentary that humanizes the cast and needs no manipulation, such as the vicious Megan's third-act revelations of her family history, or jock Colin's basketball exploits that echo the drama of Hoosiers. But it's difficult to appreciate the reality when everything else feels so fake.
Hannah, predictably, emerges as the most compelling character. The daughter of a manic-depressive mother and raised by her grandmother, Hannah displays all the highs and lows that make her a perfect cinematic rebel heroine. It doesn't hurt that she has perhaps the most vulnerable face, as quick to cry as it is to laugh. When she feels the pain of high school, it's all too real and familiar. She needs no help. She wants to get the hell out of Warsaw the first chance she gets – to be a filmmaker, no less – and we want to chip in for her plane ticket.
At the film's end, Burstein returns to a now-familiar shot of Hannah, looking pensive as she peers out into her distant, uncertain future. It's the third time Burstein's employed the same trick with Hannah. No, no, Nanette. Not again.
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