Five teens try to survive their last year of high school and figure out who they are.
Dir. Nanette Burstein, 2008, 101 min
American Teen is one of the strangest documentaries I’ve yet seen. It’s alleged nonfiction that’s masquerading as fiction. Instead of working with life, it seems to be clawing against any sort of natural flow, trying to force real situations into a coherent narrative and not finding the organic narrative. Director Nanette Burstein and her crew spent a full school year with her subjects, capturing over a thousand hours of footage, and for all that effort I’d still say they’d have been better off just making a normal movie. It almost seems like that’s what she’d rather be doing.
The movie follows five students (really four, since one of them gets so little development that he might as well not be there) of Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana, over the course of their senior year of high school. Warsaw is a typical small American town: sleepy, red-statey, and obsessed with sports. This doc purports to show something like the average teenage experience, but it honestly feels more like an episode of The Hills or some other serialized “reality” TV show.
This artifice begins with the movie consciously placing the main characters into the tired high school stereotypes: there is a “rebel,” a “princess,” a “jock,” and a “nerd.” It continues with a series of episodes that feel put-upon. It’s hard to believe that these kids would do some of these things with a camera watching them (or without one). And that’s before getting into the innumerable little moments that are obviously faked. It would, of course, be difficult to capture the in-the-moment reactions of dozens of students as they open a chain email of their topless classmate, but depicting such a scene strains one’s suspension of disbelief.
After all, every documentary has some level of fakery to it. But until this one, I’d never really thought much about some line between how much of said fakery is acceptable and how much isn’t. But I suppose there is such a line, because at some point this production crossed it. Every character’s story fits so neatly into an easy arc that I couldn’t buy that they were truly genuine. At one point, the “nerd” talks about how awkward he is with girls, and then there’s an immediate cut to him successfully asking one out.
Even setting aside the question of truthfulness (or truthiness), the story that the movie tells is as clichéd as the old ideas of cliques that it perpetuates. None of the kids’ subplots are very interesting. The nerd wants a girl, the jock needs to do well at his sport to get a college scholarship, etc. There are humorous and humane moments scattered throughout, but it’s a slog overall. It also runs way longer than it needs to, pulling up several nigh-pointless sequences, such as a trip to Mexico.
The movie also takes some bizarre stylistic turns. There are frequent animated sequences depicting the hopes and dreams of the kids. For instance, the nerd gets video game-style (of course) CGI fantasies, where he defeats his rival on the band team for the hand of a “princess.” It’s so goofy and ridiculous, and I recognize it’s possibly meant a bit of self-aware commentary on the outsized drama of adolescence, but it’s still, well… goofy.
There’s a worthwhile movie to be made about American teens, but it isn’t American Teen. Despite occasional glimpses of emotion that feel real, the documentary is hollow. I can’t trust it, because it betrays its dishonesty too often. You could go so far as to say that the movie even fails as a documentary. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that this might be the worst movie I’ve seen for this blog so far. So there you have it.