December 29, 2008
American Teen (2008) ****
Directed by Nanette Burstein
Is Burstein’s documentary trying to be the final word regarding the subject of the American teenager? If so, then this movie is a failure. If not, and I imagine she would say that it isn’t, it still needs to be pointed out that there’s a certain level of audacity which holds American Teen back from greatness. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold proclamation. Perhaps, just perhaps, not every teen fits into the archetype of one of the characters of The Breakfast Club. Minus Judd Nelson’s John Bender who is the rebellious troublemaker, each of the four main characters (and I do call them characters) of American Teen have a symbolic twin from a film made before any of these kids were born.
Molly Ringwald’s princess this time is named Megan, and for much of the movie, she’s a two-dimensional bitch (can’t think of a better word to use). She’s apparently the most popular girl at school; she’s on the student council and is the head of the prom committee (for a while anyway). More than anything, though, she’s vindictive, spoiled and extremely petty. I remember hearing over and over again from a very young age that people who put others down only do so because they are insecure about their own self-worth. Megan certainly has significant issues in her life, and these almost make up for the horrible things she does to people who make her angry—almost, but not quite. She wants to follow in the footsteps of most of the members of her family and attend Notre Dame. Will the awful pranks leave her with a disciplinary record that isn’t worthy of Notre Dame?
Emilio Estevez’s jock with an overbearing father this time is named Colin, a pleasant fellow who begins to buckle under the pressure of getting a basketball scholarship which will be the only way he would be able to afford to go to college. His father, an Elvis impersonator, which is a detail so funny that it couldn’t have been made up, supports his son completely, though he wants to see Colin do the best he can on the court, which he isn’t doing. In order to impress college recruiters, Colin tends to hold onto the ball and attempt shots rather than work as a teammate. This results in his team’s overall losing record—or so the film would have you believe. Will he be able to trust his teammates enough to show college recruiters that he’s a worthy well-rounded basketball player?
Anthony Michael Hall’s social nerd this time is named Jake, a painfully shy, sensitive, introspective member of the marching band who has braces and a bit of an acne problem At first, one might think that he’s unpopular because of the way he looks. Yet, we clearly learn that Jake’s complete lack of self-confidence is what’s really to blame. He’s on the hunt for a girlfriend and succeeds with a freshman transfer student who breaks up with him once she finds “better” friends. He gets a second chance later on with a girl from
Finally, Ally Sheedy’s freak this time is named Hannah, who lives with her grandparents because her mother is manic depressive and her father is away on an extended business assignment. She’s extremely creative, and she feels that the town of
These neat and tidy explanations match the narrative structure and characterization of American Teen. Without it, there might not have been much of a movie. Unfortunately, with it, American Teen sort of comes off inauthentic and staged. At first, I was ready to write it off as nothing more than an adequate episode of True Life on MTV. Yet, by the end, American Teen certainly transcends that condescending comparison.
In no way is American Teen a comprehensive treatise on adolescence. That being said, there are moments of fascinating insight, incredible emotion and stellar filmmaking. Add all of these moments up, and what you’ve got is an extremely satisfying and compulsively watchable slice of entertainment.
Interestingly enough, I personally wouldn’t want to be friends with any of the four characters in the movie. I’m sure there’s a lot more to each of them, and perhaps if I were me at 18 going to Warsaw High School, I might want to be friends with some if not all four teens in real life. Again, the compartmentalized personas of the four within American Teen are all very unattractive to me. Yet, there were moments when I felt emotionally connected to each one. There’s a brilliant moment when Hannah, after missing 17 days of school after her breakup, refuses to leave her dad’s car to go to school. When the girl first says that she will go out with Jake, I was happy for him. I smiled when, a few scenes later, they were holding hands in his car. Colin, of course, has obligatory basketball games where sometimes he loses and sometimes he wins. I’ll go so far as to say that I was happy when he helps his team to victory. Even Megan had me when she hears some great news towards the very end of the film.
There are also effectively disturbing moments throughout. One involves Megan graffiting someone’s house. Another takes place when Hannah reads Mitch’s break up text message. Still another shows Jake refusing to dance with his begging date at a semi-formal dance. When Megan tells her father of the graffiti, her father responds, “That’s stupid. It’s even more stupid that you couldn’t do it and not get caught.” That one really got to me.
The worst one of all, however, involves a girl named Erica who e-mails a topless picture of herself to her boyfriend who is also one of Megan’s best friends. He’s a total tool by the way, and Megan, who is jealous of the two of them together, sends the picture to a group of people which eventually leads to a good portion of the student body having it in their possession. The most heartbreaking two minutes in American Teen shows Erica on camera crying and saying that she’s trying her best to deal with it. I couldn’t even imagine.
American Teen does make a few things very clear in powerful ways. First of all, kids can be unfathomably mean to each other. Second, the pressure that many seniors must go through regarding college feels almost like it might be more than they should have to deal with at that age. Third, as much as they would like to think they know everything, kids usually have a long way to go to become fully realized adults. Fourth, everything is so ridiculously melodramatic when one is a teenager. As a high school teacher, I can say that all four insights are right on the money! I think my eighty colleagues would agree.
Though there’s much to applaud Burstein for, I did have a problem with the fact that she does ultimately judge these four characters, and as such, there’s not much left open for interpretation on the part of the viewer once the movie is over. American Teen absolutely fails as individual character studies. What we experience are four caricatures, not four human beings. This documentary is valuable, though, when judged as having a number of valid sociological insights into adolescence as a whole. Again, however, these insights are in no way universal or exhaustive.
The act of observing an event changes the event. As such, American Teen paints with somewhat fictionalized strokes. That must be kept in mind when judging it as a documentary. Because I am able to accept this fact and therefore not condemn Burstein outright because of it, American Teen goes down in my book as thoroughly enjoyable yet only modestly important.