‘American Teen’ Award-Winning Documentary A Sleeper Film Full of Heart

teenAward-winning documentary shirks traditional teen formula for raw emotion

By Matthew B. Zeidman

HOLLYWOOD, CA (RUSHPRNEWS) 8/7/08 – Most teen films, be they of the comedic or dramatic variety, explore the broad themes of alienation, popularity and the never-ending battle to fit into an environment that demands uniformity. Few do it, however, with as subtle or empathetic a hand as “American Teen.”

The movie, directed by veteran documentarian Nanette Burstein, follows the lives of five high school seniors in small-town Indiana-Colin, Jake, Hannah, Megan and Mitch-as they plan for college and struggle to break out of their social-caste stereotypes to mature as individuals.

The most sympathetic of these real-life up-and-comers is, by far, Hannah, a live-wire liberal who looks forward to college in a less restrictive environment, despite the fierce objections of her parents. Her battle with at-times crippling depression, anxiety and self-doubt truly allow the audience into the life of a deeply sensitive and thoughtful individual.

Jake also adds a powerful third dimension to this look into the lives of young Midwesterners. With a penchant for Nintendo and a membership in the school band, he makes it his mission to overcome early social trauma and relative invisibility to secure a girlfriend before the end of the school year. He is frequently hampered, however, by self-pity and badly timed inappropriate comments.

The remaining trio belongs to the so-called in crowd. Megan, the resident queen bee, enjoys a bevy of friends, which she doesn’t hesitate to betray or spurn when they make her even the slightest bit uncomfortable or envious. She has a soft side, however, having been deeply affected by a family tragedy.

Colin, a basketball star, must learn to share the spotlight and balance enormous pressure in his quest to secure a sports scholarship, which might be his only way to pay for college. Mitch, another basketball jock, becomes enamored with Hannah after watching her perform on guitar at a school function, but has trouble reconciling his clique and need for acceptance with his newfound crush’s status as “in between” (not popular or unpopular).

One truly unique feature in the film is Burstein’s use of stylistic, animated short clips to show the states of mind of her subjects-reality skewed by their own perceptions. Whether enhancing the viewer’s understanding of Hannah’s terror her mother’s manicness might be passed down to her or Megan’s naïve perception of college as an idyllic social paradise free of high school’s pettiness, the spots help give “American Teen” its own feel, without being so frequent as to make the movie seem cartoonish.

The personal journey is what’s really at the heart of the movie and not the examination of teen life in general. When Hannah enjoys a beer at a party, for example, it is roundly ignored, despite her age. The reality of the scene, emotional or otherwise, is what’s important, and the reality is that a teen drinking one beer at an unsupervised gathering is not out of the ordinary. Burstein doesn’t waste a single moment in “afterschool special” territory. Even the status of each participant’s family as rich, poor or middle class, though mentioned, is largely irrelevant when pitted against the individual drama in each participant’s life.

The only weak seams are the occasionally visible microphones clipped to students’ backs, but the emotional intensity wielded by the well defined and authentic personalities make such minor foibles forgivable and actually strengthen the film, as they highlight the fact those being recorded feel free to put their vulnerabilities, misbehavior and cruelties on display with full knowledge millions will eventually see the footage.

Though overshadowed at the box office by “Batman” fever, “American Teen,” now in limited release, proves that reality can be just as entertaining and touching as fantasy-sometimes even more so-and is worth a look for those craving a touch of genuine human drama, frailty and, yes, optimism.


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