For many, senior year is your last chance to do what you really want without worrying about snap judgments, lasting repercussions, and whether you’ll be branded as The Kid Who Said That Weird Thing for the next four years — because those four years are finally up. The risks don’t seem as daunting when they’re tempered by the knowledge that everyone is finally moving on. Of course, the end result rarely synchs up to one’s own fantasies. In the case of director Nanette Burstein’s American Teen, a documentary that followed five teenagers from a conservative Indiana town during their last year of high school, there were more than a few curveballs thrown. Burstein — whose previous documentary experience includes The Kid Stays in the Picture and On the Ropes — nimbly captures the build-up in a way that balances the clichés of high school against the trials of five very different young adults.
VIDEO: The trailer for American Teen
Burstein’s main subjects come from five different cliques. There’s the sweet jock (Colin Clemens), the pretty misfit (Hannah Bailey), the powerful prom queen (Megan Krizmanich), the clever outcast (Jake Tusing), and the sensitive heartthrob (Mitch Reinhold). They don’t stay in separate worlds for long, though. Midway through filming, the stars align. Sitting in the audience at the Warsaw Community High School talent show, watching the artsy Hannah rock out on her guitar, Mitch comes to a realization. He doesn’t want to graduate without ever talking to that girl. He develops a full-blown crush, and he and Hannah launch a when-social-hierarchies-collide story line that John Hughes would approve of. “There are so many girls who would give their left boob to be with him,” Hannah tells the cameras. Five or ten years into the future, Hannah and Mitch might have had a chance. But this is high school; even when you succeed in shocking people with your happiness, they don’t always let you get away with it.
With all her charms and idiosyncrasies, Hannah is American Teen’s unofficial star, and through her keen eyes we watch the lives of the others unravel. Burstein nonetheless switches perspectives with a light, non-judgmental touch. It’s easy to sympathize with Hannah’s heartbreaks, her city-rebel-stuck-in-a-small-town personality, and her battle with depression, or with the way Jake uses a caustic, self-depreciating wit to deal with his insecurity. But mean girl Megan is portrayed as neither a witch nor a martyr, and popular Colin struggles to find peace with his family’s expectations. He and Megan may have peaked early, but nobody is all bad or all good in American Teen.
Burstein triumphs by tempering universal archetypes with personal quirks — in part via stylized cartoon dream sequences that articulate each character’s paralyzing fears and castles in the sky. She elected to leave the definition of an “American teen” to the experts themselves, and through interviews and gems of footage they tease out the varying affectations of adolescence. Best of all, she chose individuals who were shamelessly aware of their fate and could also celebrate it: tormenting those with less power, bending to the pressures of jockdom, suffering the punishment of their own insecurities, and forsaking advice to grow up on their own stubborn terms.