Documentary focus is something that, like car keys, should not be given unquestioningly to high schoolers. American Teen, Nanette Burnstein’s particularly irritating Sundance favorite, follows a group of students into their senior year and, despite intimate access into its subjects’ triumphs and anxieties, can’t offer a single insight about adolescence that wasn’t already rancid in reruns of The Real World. (“My life sucks right now. What if it’s even worse after high school,” is about as contemplative as things get.) The Warsaw, Indiana setting—“mostly white, mostly Christian, and red-state all the way”—is promising, but the film is less interested in seeing how young people are formed by and react to their environment than in how they flatter audiences’ views of teen clichés. On the popular side, there’s basketball star Colin trying to wow potential college recruiters, and princessy “total bitch” Megan getting revenge on a rival prom-night decorator by spray-painting “fag” on his window. On the misfit side, there’s arty Juno-wannabe Hannah, who hopes to fulfill her “alternative girl” duties by leaving town for film school, and “marching band supergeek” Jake, who takes occasional time off from self-pity to tend to his video game collection and Kurt Cobain portraits. American Teen cries for some perspective: A crush, a break-up, or a game can be staggering events to a 17-year-old mind, but is that enough meat for a documentary? Then again, Burnstein’s previous project was The Kid Stays in the Picture; from propping up Robert Evans’s monumental self-infatuation to indulging adolescent egos is but a skip. The problem isn’t so much with the subjects per se as it is with the film’s insistently slick, reductive attempts to mold them into real-life counterparts to characters from some John Hughes comedy circa 1986. Tricked out with graphics and winking musical cues, the film looks for emotional truth in high school cliques but instead ends one Ally Sheedy cameo short of Not Another Teen Movie, Part Deux.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.