The final year of high school is a time that’s rife with uncertainty and indecision, so you can see why it continues to hold great appeal for filmmakers.
It’s a time when you feel as if you’re finally making the great leap into adulthood, but in reality, you’re not quite there yet"¦ hence, anxiety about getting a date for the formal can be equally as disruptive as the pressure about final exams.
John Hughes captured the contradiction of this time perfectly in his landmark teen comedies of the eighties, and there have been many pretenders to the throne since he turned his attention elsewhere (he now pens cornball kids’ comedies such as Drillbit Taylor, albeit under a pseudonym). Enter Nanette Burstein, who channels the Hughes vibe in American Teen.
Nanette Burstein has a gift for documentary making, as evident in her excellent account of movie mogul Robert Evans’ life, The Kid Stays in the Picture. For American Teen, she spent a year following graduating classmates in Warsaw, Indiana, a one-school-town in America’s Midwest. She specifically chose a town with only one school because of the added social pressure involved. Think about it: if you don’t fit in there, you don’t have any other options; at the other end of the spectrum, being the most popular kid in school can foster an even more profound sense of superiority.
Burstein freely admits that she sought out 'archetypal’ teens to star in the film, with the intention bid to go beyond the one-dimensional labels of 'Jock’, 'Princess’, 'Geek’, 'Heartthrob’ and 'Rebel’"¦
Strictly speaking, American Teen fits the confines of documentary but with its snappy production values and tightly wound narrative it skirts very close to drama. These kids may not have a Disney-fied experience of high school starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgeons, but their stories do have an almost scripted quality to them, with certain shots – if not entire scenes – seemingly staged for the benefit of the filmmakers.
It’s clear that American Teen has been edited to within an inch of its life, and Burstein draws the lines very early on, between the villains and underdogs. It’s because of this that I’m not entirely convinced that her motives were to break down established stereotypes.
Take Megan, for instance. As the Princess of the piece, she’s definitely the least likeable of the bunch, and you get the feeling that’s exactly how Burstein wants it. Megan is a Heather through and through; she embodies all of the traits that pissed off Christian and Winona in that seminal teen classic. She fiercely guards her status as Queen Bee of the school, and doesn’t suffer rivals gladly. It’s telling that her act of rebellion – spray painting obscenities on an enemy’s house – is committed using water-based paint. She’s bad but she knows her limits (a rebel with an escape clause, as it were).
In the film’s final third a personal revelation reveals a hidden vulnerability, which is difficult to reconcile with the callous nature she displays in the rest of the film"¦ until you remind yourself that this is an actual person and of course, bitchy girls experience tragedy too. It just doesn’t usually happen in teen movies unless it’s a revenge fantasy.
But it’s not all about Megan – and happily, Megan says she has begun to realise this fact of life, according to the film’s 'Where are they Now"-like postscript.
Jock Colin is a nice guy but isn’t really a team player, taking every chance he can to shoot for the hoop. It’s causing tension in his team and leads to a season losing streak that threatens his chances of making it into college. His dad (an Elvis impersonator, as it happens) is supportive but cautions that it’s off to the Army if he doesn’t score a basketball scholarship"¦
Rebel Hannah is the delicate and artistic flower of the film, unlucky in love and prone to bouts of severe depression. She hates the town/ the school/ Megan, and longs to get away to California and pursue a career as a filmmaker. She nurses a broken heart for most of the film and swears off boys"¦ until the school’s bohunk 'Heartthrob’ Mitch makes a play for her"¦
Geek Jake’s bad skin, braces and low self esteem make him the school’s social pariah and he spends much of his time in his room playing video games but he plucks up the courage to ask the new girl in school for a date"¦ and it\'s his and Hannah\'s stories that are the most affecting.
One of the film’s weaknesses is Burstein’s decision to create animated fantasy sequences for each of the teens. At best, the sequences are gimmicky and at worst, they’re condescending, particularly when it comes to representing Hannah’s depressive tendencies and Jake’s feelings of isolation.
Though the pressures may not change much from generation to generation, the methods certainly do, and Burstein captures the effect of technology on relationships perfectly in two key scenes. We see a plugged-in, switched-on generation that breaks hearts and ruins reputations with the click of a cursor. They live in the moment and have little concern of the consequences of their electronic cruelty.
It’s also surprising how comfortable and un-self-conscious they are about having a camera document their daily lives. True, this is likely a result of the director’s efforts to disarm her subjects, but there are several moments in the film that make you wonder why anyone would permit a film crew to be present; I’m no fugitive from justice but I can’t see why you’d allow yourself to be filmed committing vandalism, or cheating on a boyfriend.
American Teen may feel inauthentic at times, and it may not offer any great revelations about The Youth of Today but it’s a compelling slice-of-life snapshot about growing up and getting on in Anytown USA.