Dir: Nanette Burstein
Documentarian Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) follows five seniors, and their various different cliques, through their emotional final year (2005) of high school.
American Teen claims to be a documentary, but ever since it’s first screening the status of Nanette Burstein’s film as ‘non-fictional’ has been called into question. There are definitely questions that need answering. This is because American Teen doesn’t play like a documentary, doesn’t feel like a documentary, and has many incongruities that call into question its claims to be a documentary. This 'documentary' feels much like any other high school movie, the characters fit just as easily into categories as those in any teen flick. There’s Hannah; the weird arty girl who’s a bit depressive. There’s Jake; the socially inept band geek with a face like a pizza, who desperately wants a girlfriend. There’s Colin and Mitch; the jocks, relying on sport to get them out of their small town. And there’s Megan; queen bee of the school, and an outrageous bitch. With a lot of documentaries one can say ‘you couldn’t make it up’ with American Teen you certainly could.
Stylistically there are odd things that crop up and alert you that all may not be quite as it seems. At least twice I noticed the Burstein had flipped shots (writing on some of the kids clothes goes from normal to mirrored in the space of a single shot), she’s also skewed the timeline, without saying so (after Jake has a haircut the very next scene shows him, ostensibly very soon after, with his long hair) and in one key scene one incredibly important shot appears to be staged, clearly taking place in the day, when the rest of the scene is at night, this isn’t even just dishonest, it’s a ridiculously stupid and obvious error that undermines any sense of truth in the film.
And yet, I liked American Teen. I disengaged early on from the idea that any of it could really be trusted (events unfold in a way that’s just far too perfect) and just focused on the kids. Fake as the movie seems they come off as real, and content to give an unvarnished and often deeply unflattering picture of themselves. Everyone will have their favourites; the kid they identify with, the kid they remember from their school. I knew versions of all of these guys, and the film did catapult me back to my own (not so distant) school days. I was, it’s sad to say, Jake. I had more friends than him, but I saw more of myself in this awkward, but ultimately sweet, kid than I care to go into. If I were at school with her I’d have been madly in love with Hannah Bailey. She’s easily the most engaging of the kids, and the one that you find yourself most interested in, and rooting for (the audience cheered when the final caption about her came up). She’s smart, creative and beautiful, and I was completely taken with her. The jocks fare less well; Colin’s story is basically Hoop Dreams, without any of the depth or believability, or interest of that stunning piece of cinema and Mitch is late to the party, and has little personality, you get the feeling he’s only included because of his association with Hannah. Megan is an interesting case; the hissable villain of the piece, her story is the least convincing because many of her actions, captured on film, are criminal, and those that aren’t are simply cruel. There is a little depth afforded her, very late in the day, but her entire story seems utterly contrived.
You have to take American Teen with more than a pinch of salt, but it’s often extremely funny and engaging, it will prick memories of your school days and it will introduce you to a couple of really interesting people who you will really come to care about.