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american teen

American Teen
Nanette Burstein
Cast: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Geoff Haase, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jack Tusing, Ali Wikalinska

Joanne Ross

August 15, 2008


“August 24th, 8:00 am. Warsaw Indiana. The first day of senior year.”

And so begins Nanette Burnstein’s film American Teen, her look into the lives of four teenagers and their friends as they steer their way through the hallways—and social realities—of Warsaw Community High School, Warsaw Indiana, during their senior year. Profiled are Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, and Jake Tusing.

Students might regard high school as an ecosystem, and every ecosystem has a food chain. At the top, according to Hannah, are the most popular group of girls lead by the “queen bee” Megan. Next come “the jocks”, lead by star basketball player Colin, “second only to Jesus in Warsaw.” Following are the “in-betweens”, artsy/emo girl Hannah. And finally, we have the bottom feeders--the oh-so-likeable, but friendless, Jake, “the quintessential marching band nerd.” Each represents one of the stereotypes or cliques associated with high school. Each keeps to his own kind, erecting barriers based on perceived differences.

Though each student’s story is different and each confronts different situations, issues common to them all—indeed to all teenagers—start to emerge. Hannah longs to escape Warsaw and attend college in San Francisco despite her parents’ wish that she remain in Warsaw to study, all while working through a wrenching breakup with her boyfriend. Colin is pressured by his dad, an Elvis impersonator, to win a sports scholarship. His focus shattered, he bungles plays on court causing his team to suffer losses. Lonely Jake is desperate for a girlfriend.  And the mean-spirited Megan, waiting to see if she is accepted to Notre Dame, engages in some nasty shenanigans that almost derail her college career and eventually lose her some close friends. One in particular, the naïve Erica, discovers what can happen if someone has the audacity to cross Megan. In this age of the technology, of the internet, e-mail, cell phones, and text messaging, she learns an important lesson: be careful of what you send and to whom you send it.

As each student tells his/her story, Burnstein accompanies the narration with an animated sequence. While fun to watch (one is borderline disturbing), these sequences don’t add anything. I suspect Burnstein included them to appeal to the younger audience.

Billed as a documentary, American Teen is really more in the style of cinema vérité and even strays into the realm of reality television—at times it felt a bit like The Hills or Laguna Beach. It’s an entertaining format, but stretches credibility. Criticism from Warsaw Community High students present during filming complained of the film’s “fakeness”. However, you don’t need to hear or read their criticisms to realize that the filmmakers simply could not have captured the footage they did if some of those scenes had not been set-up beforehand, maybe even scripted—either partially or entirely. So the relationship dynamics and the truthfulness of the various dramas that unfold is suspect.

What does emerge as truthful is the angst experienced by teenagers, in high school and out, while they struggle to define who they are and find their place in the world. Peer pressure, parental pressure, cruelty, questionable behavior, bad decisions, fear of the future, loneliness, jealousy, selfishness, breakups, desire for friends—by the end of their senior year, Hannah, Colin, Megan, and Jake experience some if not all of these challenges and dilemmas. They are more alike than they first imagined.

American Teen is a thoroughly absorbing glimpse into the lives of teenagers. Sadly, Burnstein doesn’t dig far beneath the surface. Nothing new is revealed. Rather she reminds us, very palpably, of a time of life that was, for many, fraught with confusion, fear, and painful experiences.  Like their hormones, the life of a teenager is full of ups and downs. And a lot of acne.*-JR


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