July 30, 2008
“American Teen” observes a year in the life of four high school seniors in Warsaw, Ind. It is presented as a documentary, and indeed these students, their friends and families are all real people, and these are their stories. But many scenes seem suspiciously staged. Why would Megan, the “most popular” girl in school, allow herself to be photographed spreading toilet paper on a lawn and spray-painting “FAG” on the house window of a classmate? Is she really that unaware? She’s the subject of disciplinary action in the film; why didn’t she tell school officials that she only did it for the movie?
Many questions like that occur while you’re watching “American Teen,” but once you make allowance for the factor of directorial guidance, the movie works effectively as what it wants to be: a look at these lives, in this town (“mostly middle-class, white and Christian”), at this time.
The director is Nanette Burstein, whose credits include “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” She spent a year in Warsaw, reportedly shot 1,000 hours of footage, and focused on four students who represent segments of the high school population.
Megan Krizmanich is pretty, on the school council, a surgeon’s daughter, “popular” but sometimes considered a bitch. She dreams of going to Notre Dame, as her father, a brother and a sister did. She seems supremely self-confident until late in the film, when we learn about a family tragedy that her mother blames for her “buried anger.”
Colin Clemens, with a Jay Leno chin, is the basketball star. His dad has a sideline as an Elvis impersonator (pretty good, too). The family doesn’t have the money to send him to college, so everything depends on winning an athletic scholarship, a fact he is often reminded of. He doesn’t have a star personality, is a nice guy, funny.
Hannah Bailey is the girl who wants to get the hell out of Warsaw. She dreams of studying film in San Francisco. Her parents warn her of the hazards of life for a young girl alone in the big city, but she doesn’t want to spend her life at a 9-to-5 job she hates. “This is my life,” she firmly tells her parents. She also goes into a deep depression when a boyfriend breaks up with her, and misses so many days of school as a result that she is threatened with not graduating.
And Jake Tusing is the self-described nerd, band member, compulsive video game player, who decorates his room with an array of stuffed, framed or mounted animals. He has a bad case of acne, which is a refreshing touch, since so many movie teenagers seem to escape that universal problem.
During this year, a guy will break up with his girl by cell phone. A topless photo of a girl will be circulated via the Internet and cell phone to everyone in school and, seemingly, in the world. Megan will make a cruel phone call to the girl. Romances will bloom and crash. Crucial basketball games will be played. And the focus will increasingly be on what comes next: college or work? Warsaw or the world?
Warsaw Community High School, with its sleek modern architecture, seems like a fine school, but we don’t see a lot of it. Most of the scenes take place in homes, rec rooms, basements, fast-food restaurants, basketball games and school dances (curiously, hardly anyone in the film smokes, although one girl says she does). We begin to grow familiar with the principals and their circles, and start to care about them; there’s a certain emotion on graduation day.
“American Teen” isn’t as penetrating or obviously realistic as her “On the Ropes,” but Burstein (who won best director at Sundance 2008) has achieved an engrossing film. No matter what may have been guided by her outside hand, it is all in some way real, and often touching.
The Guardian, Friday 6 March 2009
Like Anvil, the recent movie about failing Canadian rockers, this study of a group of American teenagers in their final year of high school is on the mocu-documentary borderline. Is it for real – or not? Well, it is supposed to be real. Film-maker Nanette Burstein has followed five teenagers over 10 months as they prepare for adulthood. One’s a jock, one’s a nerd, one’s a bitch-princess, and so on. Some things in it do look very authentic indeed, like one boy’s acne. Yet there’s an awful lot here which is simply too good, too dramatically shaped, to be true. Throughout the film I had a nagging sense that it simply had to be a hoax. One girl is a indie-chick outsider and wannabe film student – in a fiction feature, she would obviously be the director’s autobiographical persona – and her boyfriend breaks up with her by text. We see the text in closeup. Ouch. Was that for real? The princess vandalises a rival’s home: this scene really does look staged, or at least reconstructed. Or maybe it’s simply that the teens involved were getting a sixth sense of what was going to look good on camera. Perhaps documentary film-making has become so self-conscious that the grammar of spoof has become overwhelmingly influential. Either way, this film was for me marred by the persistent suspicion that the director wasn’t being entirely straight with us.
American Teen turns fact into fiction
It’s a vision that plays well enough on screen, but what about the reality? In real life, surely things must be a little more complicated, troubling and uncertain. Should you want to know the truth, you may have been looking forward to American Teen, a big-budget, Sundance-garlanded documentary that purports to lay bare the facts.
Yet, guess what! The facts turn out to be much the same as the fiction … only more so. Nanette Burstein’s portrait of 10 months in the life ofWarsaw Community High School, Indiana, unveils not just the characters we know so well already, but the self-same stories too.
Here be the bitchy princess, the jock, the geek, the rebel and the heartthrob. Popular but bullying Megan overreaches herself with a nasty prank that threatens her otherwise glittering future. However, a sad family secret explains away her dark side and redemption quickly follows. To get to college, Colin needs a basketball scholarship. Overeager, he hogs the hoop, wrecking his team’s and his own prospects. A wise old coach intervenes; Colin learns to pass to his teammates and therein finds salvation.
Documentary this may be, but it finds no room for downers such as drug mishaps, abortions or social diseases. All that distinguishes its heroes from their fictional counterparts is that one of them is allowed to have acne. So, has Hollywood been telling it just like it is? Is teen life stateside just a more exciting version of The Breakfast Club?
Before accepting that this must be so, we should perhaps take note of certain details. Burstein didn’t settle upon her slice of life at random. She painstakingly extracted her final 95 minutes from 1,000 hours of footage. The film’s five stars were selected through carefully staged auditions. Upon what basis?
“They all had a good story,” Burstein explained to the LA Times, “so I felt I had all these strong narrative arcs I could follow that were saying something larger.” It had to be this way, if she was to achieve her purpose. “I want to entertain people; I want to move them in the same way a fiction film would.”
Imagine you’re a Warsaw high-schooler turning up for your audition. You’ll suss out what Burstein’s after in around two seconds. If you want your 15 minutes of fame, and you must certainly do, you’d better make sure that your story matches her needs. If you’re selected, you’ll adapt your behaviour to suit the required narrative without even thinking about it.
Psychologists regard the desire to conform to “demand characteristics”as a “confounding variable” that can wreck an experiment. It is known as“Hawthorne effect”: it causes human behaviour, like that of subatomic particles, to change simply because it is being observed.
Certainly, American Teen offers its audiences an unintended diversion. You can spend the whole time trying to guess which of the film’s many photogenic key developments would actually have occurred if the cameras hadn’t been present. Would that girl really have emailed that fateful photo of her breasts? Would that boy have ditched his sweetheart by text message? How many of all those tears would actually have been shed?
In recent years, conventional fiction has been losing its appeal. We’ve grown a bit bored with it: after all, it’s just made-up stuff. Hence the vogue for authenticity that’s brought us so many misery memoirs, WAGs’ autobiographies and reality TV shows. Nonetheless, we still crave the narrative drive, clear-cut characters and moral certainties that fiction has always delivered. Exercises such as American Teen are trying to square this circle.
Last week, The Class offered us real people playing fictionalised versions of themselves in what was presented as a drama. This week we’ve a documentary in which real people play versions of themselves that may also have been modified. Both films blur the boundary between fact and fiction in an attempt to get the best of both.
We should expect more such ventures. Maybe we should welcome them. Yet we’ll need to keep an ever closer eye on what exactly it is that we’re being offered. Stories are seductive and compelling, but the truth is messy and uncertain. If we allow ourselves to be led into mistaking the one for the other, we’re likely to live to regret it.