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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008

Teenage Wasteland? (American Teen)

Surviving senior year

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Warsaw, Ind., a little almost-all-white town on a flat stretch of Red State nowhere, is one of those fabled meridians of Middle America. The town, and especially its high school, is the setting for a documentary that was the talk of Sundance: American Teen.

Directed by Nanette Burstein, whose rsum includes the amusing The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen is a polished film with beautiful swatches of cinematography, creative animated segments illustrating the fantasies of the principal actors and a breezy tone and pace. It tells a story of insiders and outsiders in that treacherous rite of passage called high school.

American Teen is structured around the course of senior year, a time when the pressure of what comes next, of impending graduations and 18th birthdays, builds to skull-crushing force. At the same time, all the old social anxieties remain. The school year begins with the rattletrap parade floats, the big game and the dance associated with homecoming and climaxes with prom night. Will he ask me? What if she says no?

Burstein focuses on a quartet of familiar types, representing several social cliques common in high schools anywhere in the United States. Megan is the bitchy blond homecoming queen; Colin is the basketball star jock; Jake is the marching band geek with a bad complexion and low self-esteem; Hannah is the artsy "alternative" girl who dreams of becoming a film director.

Questions arise: If there was no camera present or if the onlookers were concealed, would the real-life subjects behave the same? Are some of the most intimate scenes, especially first dates and romantic breakups, staged or recreated? Or in this Facebook/YouTube era, maybe even the lowliest high school outcast feels like the star of his own little movie, living a transparent life for everyone to gaze through.

American Teen shows the perils of too much casual transparency. The girl daft enough to e-mail her boyfriend a JPEG with a frontal nude shot of herself finds that her picture has been forwarded across the town. It's the hottest piece of gossip in school. Megan and her vicious circle take special delight in tormenting the girl with crank, "Oh my God! You're a slut!" phone calls.

The lives of the main characters are gradually revealed; even Megan has endured a family tragedy that makes her more human. Colin's dad is counting on an athletic scholarship because he has no money to send his boy to college. Hannah and Jake rise and fall along the trail of emotional valleys and peaks. American Teen is a vivid mosaic of contemporary high school composed from the pieces of four lives closely observed.