Thursday, July 24, 2008

"American Teen"

Despite everyone flipping their shit over Nanette Burstein's documentary "American Teen" ever since it premiered at Sundance, I'm a bit torn about my own feelings on it. On the one hand, it's unquestionably entertaining; it's easy to connect to and get wrapped up with our five central teenage figures, and it presents an engaging narrative, hitting all the satisfying story beats a movie should. You will likely become attached to at least one of these kids, and you'll be thoroughly involved throughout the film; I know I wouldn't mind watching it again. My real problem with "American Teen" is that it was so obviously crafted to be a mainstream, accessible, generic, standard teen flick -- and thus, to make as much money as possible -- that it fails resoundingly as a documentary, and doesn't really attempt to offer any actual insight on the teenage experience. It's basically "The Hills" with less off-putting people. Starting out with the concept of finding real teens that fit into the "Breakfast Club" stereotypes of "The Geek," "The Jock," "The Princess," "The Rebel" and "The Heartthrob," Burnstein is so committed to sticking with this premise, that any elements threatening to make the characters/situations/ideas more complex than their brandings are pushed to the side.

From its airbrushing and shoving into the background of more interesting figures (e.g.: "The Rebel" Hannah's gay best friend) and issues (said friend's homosexuality in a small red-state town, the interplay between the social groups, genuine teenage concerns besides petty soap opera drama), the filmmakers frequently had opportunities to make a movie that really resonated, and instead opted for the most commercial route. The downplaying of more interesting content and the embracing of breakups, forced love stories and on-screen-displayed text-messages had me wondering, 'why bother even making a documentary at all?' Also, scenes were clearly, absolutely, no matter what anyone involved with the film says, staged. I'm sorry, but if a family situation is that the kid needs to get a basketball scholarship or join the Army, there is no way the dad is sitting the kid down and telling him that weeks before graduation. That is a conversation that certainly had been had numerous times way down the line (and the kid's blank reaction proves it) and was re-created for dramatic effect, and there's a half dozen more scenes in the film like it. Adolescence is a time in everyone's life that really deserves a decent documentary exploring it, and though thoroughly entertaining, "American Teen" seems far more interested in making its subjects fit into John Hughes cliche boxes than honestly documenting their emotions, interactions and concerns.

"American Teen" opens tomorrow July 25th in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles, and expands nationwide in August.


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