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American Teen

Reviewed by GregKing

Reviewed by GREG KING.
Direcor: Nanette Burstein.
Big Brother goes to high school?
This highly acclaimed fly on the wall documentary follows five teenagers throughout their final year at a high school deep in the American heartland of Warsaw, Indiana. Documentary film maker Nanette Burstein (On The Ropes, The Kid Stays In The Picture, etc) has gained the trust of her five typical subjects, who grant her almost unfettered access to their lives over the course of ten months.
Burstein gives us five kids who could have easily come from central casting’s idea of typical school kids. Megan Krizmanich is the wealthy and spoilt cheerleader and queen bitch of the school. When she is crossed or things don’t quite go her way she exacts a very nasty and publicly humiliating revenge. Hannah Bailey is more artistic and dreams of moving to San Francisco after graduating. But she is also more vulnerable, and after her boyfriend dumps her she has an emotional meltdown and refuses to go to school, even though it may cost her credits. Colin Clemens is the star of the school’s basketball team, which means, in this small town, that he is “second only to God”. But his family is rather poor – his father works as an Elvis impersonator at a senior citizens home – and unless he gets a sporting scholarship he will be unable to go to college. When the pressure is on though his game goes to pieces. Jake Tusing is the shy, virginal nerd who is desperate to find a girl friend. And Mitch Reinholt is the good guy who tries to remain friends with everyone.
It must have taken some time for the kids to relax, and become less self-conscious of the camera crews constantly following them. Burstein and her crew follow these five kids as they deal with all the adolescent angst, pressures of school, relationships, expectations and hopes and dreams. Throughout the documentary, Burstein makes some unusual artistic choices, and there are animated sequences that illustrate the dreams and hopes of each of the five subjects.
In exploring their lives, Burstein shows us that the early films of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, etc) were pretty spot on when it came to depicting adolescent angst and the troubled rites of passage of American teens. Nothing much has changed in the twenty odd years since Hughes explored this fertile territory. In editing some 1000 hours of footage down to the brisk 112 minutes we see here though American Teen tends to only skim the surface, and ultimately the film lacks any real depth or insight.
And much of the film smacks of manipulation and contrivance, like many so-called reality tv shows which set up situations in order to tease the audience. It’s also not clear whether Burstein completely empathises with her subjects all the time. The recent films of Gus Van Sant (Elephant, etc) had more veracity and truth to them than this documentary.

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