American Teen is a 2008 documentary from filmmaker Nanette Burstein, who has a couple solid films under her belt (The Kid Stays in the Picture, and On the Ropes, both of which I would like to see). This documentary takes place in a small town in Indiana (Warsaw, Indiana, to be specific), and centers on the lives of 5 teenagers at the local high school. In this film, Burstein attempts to showcase the classic teenage stereotypes, such as the nerd, the jock, the popular girl, the heartthrob, and the outcast, and toss them together to see what happens, a la The Breakfast Club. The result is rather mixed, but in an enjoyable, refreshing way.
My primary issue with the film was that it did feel a bit scripted. This has been the source of a cloud of controversy surrounding this movie, and after seeing it, I can understand why. Many viewers have gone so far as to accuse the Burstein of feeding the characters lines while film, to manipulate the story. I should be very clear – I believe the director and teens portrayed when they state that nothing was scripted. However, while I do believe that the real lives of these teens are portrayed, I also feel that the director heavily edited the film to show us what she wanted us to see. This is NOT necessarily bad thing, in fact, this is the basis for cinematic storytelling on any level, and it is necessary in order for any plot progression to occur. That said, Burstein shot for 10 months in Warsaw, and apparently had over 1000 hours of footage that was edited down to 2 hours. This means that we, the audience, only get to see .2% of these teens’ lives in front of the lens, and a lot of details and character elements were left out. This amount of editing is not a problem for a fictional film, but for a movie like this, which is attempting to capture real life, it calls its authenticity into question. Do I think that it is impossible to capture the teenage experience on camera? Yes (with the almost exception of Freaks & Geeks, what a great show!) Has a great film been made here? Absolutely.
All nitpicking aside, this is a fun and interesting take on the American high school experience, and the rare movie that almost everyone can relate to, since we can all see a little bit of ourselves in each of these characters. I’d love to hear what others thought about it in the comments – am I being too harsh? Have I missed something?