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"American Teen": A Winning Documentary about Real-Life High Schoolers

by Chris Knipp

Social behavior and social categories in high school are predictable. But it's the ways those categories get twisted and the rules are broken that make life real.

Though not searching or unusual, the new documentary "American Teen," which focuses on a group of students in their senior year at a high school in the little town of Warsaw, Indiana, still hits enough of the bases to be, for mainstream audiences, sensationally touching, interesting, and familiar. And if there is nothing new or newsworthy, the joys and sorrows, cliques and outsiders will take you back. Producer/director Nanette Burstein worked on the Oscar-nominated documentary "On the Ropes." She knows what she's doing, and this stuff is well packaged.

In some ways it's almost too well packaged. First of all, the jaunty editing of the intro and the animations to show different kids' fantasy lives are a bit too cute and pat—though maybe it's fair to say these kids' fantasies aren't too complex in real life. Warsaw, Indiana is not a place of great sophistication.

Burstein structures things in the same old way, with familiar categories: 'The Jock' (Colin Clemens), 'the Geek' (Jake Tusing), 'the Rebel' (Hannah Baile), 'the Princess' (Megan Krizmanich), and 'the Heartthrob' (Mitch Reinholt). The director picks one of each and sticks with them. Thankfully they depart from category—as Burstein expects them too—even as they tend to buy into the way life or school have type-cast them.

Colin the Jock almost blows his chances of an athletic scholarship to college. Megan the Princess commits an act of vandalism that takes her down a peg when she's caught, and she's far from a shoe-in to her chosen school (Notre Dame). After many disappointments and rejections, Jake the Geek finds love. Perhaps most remarkably of all, for a while at least, Mitch, the Heartthrob, happily dates the misfit girl Rebel, Hannah.

Social behavior and social categories in high school are predictable. But it's the ways those categories get twisted and the rules are broken that make life real and a story like this something that transcends sociology and tiptoes by the back door into something romantic and human and multi-layered. There's no doubt about the fact that the film finds the Rebel and the Geek most interesting in the bunch overall, and focuses on the popular kids most attentively when they become momentarily interesting by messing up.

A warning for anyone outside the Red State American white middle class: Though Colin's dad can't afford to send him to college without a scholarship, the film doesn't show us real poverty, or extraordinary wealth, even though Megan lives in a McMansion and drives a Mercedes. There's nobody gay, or foreign, or handicapped in sight, and even the basketball team (the "Tigers," the athletic pinnacle of Warsaw High) seems to have only one black member. There's also nobody markedly brilliant or intellectual, and not a minute is wasted on whatever goes on in the classroom except for a mock interview where Hannah candidly reveals she has not the slightest interest in landing a conventional job. Reading and writing and 'rithmetic? Whatever. Basketball? Big deal. Dating? Big, big, big deal--especially for the ones who find it hard to land and hold onto a boy or girl.

The "winners" are the most predictable. Megan is self-centered and bossy. Mitch is cute and has an infectious smile. When Megan's best male friend and best girlfriend start getting interested in each other, Megan gets hopping mad. Darn it, it's meant to be all about her. Jake and Hannah have a perpetual hard time. Jake, who would be very cute if he took meds to clear up his acne, articulates the dysfunctionality of his school identity for the camera willingly, like the outspoken boy with Asperger's Syndrome in Jennifer Venditti's documentary "Billy the Kid." Jake says his life sucks and girls shun him. Self-fulfilling prophesy? Not entirely. In earlier days maybe "geek" wasn't such a clear category. Jake knows the characteristics. Megan is blinded by ego, but even she shows some perception, post-"Heathers," of the pros and cons of being an Alpha Female. The blurbs for this new movie say it's better than John Hughes or "The Breakfast Club," but a lot of how we see these kids and they see themselves grows out of earlier pictures of high school in movies like Hughes'.

Jake talks in a monotone—as he notes—and his life is a dull round of slight failures. He is not a real outcast. He's at least in the school band. And his lack of friends, he says, makes him have a special need of a girlfriend, so he keeps trying and sooner or later is shot down. This is not, however, a full-time Geek. It's Geekhood lite. To avoid one important school dance he has no date for, he weekends with his older brother in San Diego, who gets him drunk in Mexico. He has a good time. He's a disaster at any social event with popular kids around. But he makes it to senior prom, and that leads to a surprise.

Dramas in this film are not earth-shaking, but they're numerous. In fact it would have been nice if the film had been edited to include more fun and funny moments and gone a little easier on the tears, to show teenagers do get to laugh and play. (One of the best laughs, and surprises, is a sequence showing Colin's dad moonlighting as an Elvis impersonator.) But it's true: for high school kids, almost anything can look like the end of the world. Most dramatic in that vein, Hannah's long-time boyfriend dumps her (all such assassinations are now conducted by Text Messaging). It turns out her mother is bi-polar and her father absent, and she's essentially raised by her granny. The rejection leads to a depression so severe she can't go back to school for 17 days and she almost loses her chance to graduate.

Hannah has a tough journey ahead of her. But she takes anti-depressants, drags herself back to school, and learns to smile again. In the end she's the only one in Burstein's group who dares to see beyond the horizon. She doesn't just want to be on the winning team or get into Notre Dame. She wants to become a filmmaker and she wants to get out of Indiana. San Francisco State is her goal. Her parents reunite on camera to be surprisingly mean. They won't support her and her mother tries to scare her about being "alone in a big city."

Mitch takes up with her. He's never met her but always been attracted to her. A Heartthrob can choose whom he pleases. Opposites attract. Maybe she completes him. They have a little whirl. But when she accompanies him to Megan's house with all the popular kids, it's a disaster. Like the male in Neil LaBute's play "Fat Pig," Mitch dumps Hannah because no matter how happy they are together, and they evidently are, peer pressure tells him she won't do. But Hannah survives that and goes to San Francisco planning to work for a year till she becomes a California resident and can hope to pay the fees of SF State. Hannah is a brave and determined soul and a free spirit, and for my money, the coolest kid in "American Teen." I'm rooting for Hannah. She could live to make an "American Teen" of her own—a richer, more comprehensive, less packaged one.

Please don't tell me this documentary is funnier than "Napoleon Dynamite" or wittier than "Juno." It's not. And when it comes to dissecting and recombining the categories, it can't beat "Freaks and Geeks." But it has one big advantage. These kids are, more or less, taken directly from real life. And that will probably make this the winning mainstream documentary of the summer of 2008.

©Chris Knipp 2008. Chris Knipp, of San Francisco, writes about movies, politics and art on his blogsite.

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This story was published on August 5, 2008.