American Teen, the new documentary about teen life directed by Nanette Burstein
, lends credence to the somewhat comforting yet completely ludicrous idea that teen comedies, from John Hughes through American Pie, have high school life completely pegged. Mounted on the shoulders of four teenagers living in East Nowhere, Indiana (okay, okay, it's Warsaw, Indiana), Burstein excavates the meta-dramatic senior year of the four pre-collegiates, peppered equally with family squabbles and a carousel of break-ups, hook-ups, and almost-relationships. The four sociological archetypes are covered perfectly: A Jock, a Bitch, a Nerd and a Wild Card. As always, the insinuation is that they all have a lot more in common in the end then they realized. For those who felt that the 40 minutes of MTV's True Life were just not enough, your film has arrived.
Burstein's film, her third major documentary to date, is the first film I feel completely comfortable labeling "reality filmmaking." The very fact that MTV didn't have a hand in this leaves me dazed. In editing, framing, and even (dare I say?) dramatic arc, Teen is the distant cousin of the music channel's monster hit series The Hills, the heavily-manipulated "reality" show about a group of young women trying to make it in the fashion business. Article continues below
The same way The Hills sells the absurd notion that white, rich semi-celebrities deserve not only our attention but our sympathy, Burstein has the gall to propose that your teen years are compact, relatively serious, and not disturbing in the least. That's not to say that both projects don't have a certain entertainment value to them. Like teen dramedies and romantic comedies before them, the assurance that every emotion can be compartmentalized has a familiar calm to it. Neither could be misconstrued as boring, but calling either of them a relatively honest perception of reality is completely without merit.
Among the stories here: A topless photograph of a student circulates thanks to The Bitch (Megan Krizmanich
) while The Wild Card (Hannah Bailey
) begins to date a friend of The Jock (Colin Clemens
) after he swoons over her at the Battle of the Bands. But for every interesting moment like this that is grazed, there are four moments that smack of manipulation. The height of this hogwash comes when, with swooning soundtrack, all four characters are photographed in succession with their best pensive faces on, as Burstein slowly zooms in.
Earlier this year, Gus Van Sant
used real teenagers to act out a loosely-constructed plot involving a teenager who becomes implicit in the untimely death of a railway security guard; a trapdoor into the confusion and emotional distress that comes with being in your teens. That film, Paranoid Park
, still stands as the year's major achievement in cinema. Where Van Sant outwardly faked a reality to give his work a performance piece backbone, Burstein's "documentary" of a tailored reality offers no insight, and no authenticity.
Ms. Burstein has directed two films before this: 2003's The Kid Stays in the Picture and the excellent amateur boxing documentary Against the Ropes. The latter evoked the same struggles and intrigues that bloomed in Steve James' classic Hoop Dreams, though admittedly in smaller scope: The fight between integrity, ability, and marketing lingered long after the credits. All that remains after American Teen are the age-old credos: Parents suck, kids are mean and sex and music are the only things that make the whole ordeal tolerable.