[Above: Jake Tusing of American Teen]
Release Date: July 25
Director/Writer: Nanette Burstein
Cinematographer: Laela Kilbourn
Studio/Run Time: 57th & Irving Productions, 95 mins.
A teen’s fate changes from minute to minute, text message to text message, and nothing illustrates this fast and fickle phenomenon better than the shifting skin conditions of a nerd: One minute a veritable lunar landscape, the next a blessedly and surprisingly clear expanse, if a little shiny.
You’re cool; then you’re not. You’re hopelessly in love; then you’re not. You’re feuding with a friend; then you’re not. You’re filled with inconsolable rage and a need for revenge; then a day later you’re ready to forgive yourself or someone else.
Documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein skillfully and artfully captures this speedy and perpetual shifting of fortunes for four archetypal teenagers—the nerd, the jock, the popular girl and the artsy outsider—in American Teen, a documentary that is at once MTV slick and earnestly warm.
Though the territory tread here is not new, Burstein manages some special feats: Her cameras are somehow present for these kids’ most raw and defining moments, and she manages to very quickly make us care for every character, no matter how flawed, self-absorbed or downright mean.
It would be natural to immediately wonder whether some moments were staged—does every sullen teen look forlornly off a bridge or sit solemnly on a playground swing?—or whether Burstein asked the kids to pause breakups and arguments until her crew could get there to film them. I have no idea whether any such orchestrating occurred, but just a few scenes into the film, the thought no longer bothered me. The kids, who at first seemed so aware of the cameras, and maybe even emboldened by them, soon appeared to forget all about them—a skill perhaps acquired by a generation raised on reality television and somehow accustomed, or welcoming, to cameras in their faces.
American Teen focuses on a Breakfast Club-like assortment of 17-year-olds at a high school in central Indiana: Colin, the basketball player who'll end up in the Army if he doesn’t get a sports scholarship; Hannah, the loveable art-geek who pulls a Pretty in Pink and dates a popular boy; Megan, the popular girl whose mean streak stems from a family tragedy; and Jake, the band nerd who is often invisible at school but occasionally gets the girl.
Missing, of course, is diversity of race, and—more surprisingly—the somewhat newer crop of teenage archetypes: the bulimic, the self-cutter, the super-slut, the Ritalin addict, the potential school shooter.
Really, though, American Teen is stronger without calamitous characters, whose traumas might’ve overpowered the film, desensitizing the audience and leaving little room for the important nuances of love, conformity, friendship, heartbreak and yearning. That—plus the cartoon-animated dreams and nightmares of these teens—makes the film resonate.