Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen opens not far from John Hughes country, both geographically and artistically: we're introduced, in quick order, to four students at the high school in Warsaw, Indiana, on the first day of class. But while the camera work and voice-over has the glossy fizz of fiction, it's nonetheless a real school, and while the kids we meet all correlate roughly to the archetypal teens of fiction, they're real too. We meet Hannah, the plucky, artsy outsider; Colin, the star athlete with a heart of gold; Megan, the prom queen whose school-spirit high-fives hide an iron fist; and smart, insecure, dorky Jake, all in quick succession. And while part of your mind reels at the clichés -- we're just one Judd Nelson-type away from a straight flush, for heaven's sake -- as Burstein's film unfolds, we realize that if there ever was a place cliché's were true, it's high school.
And even then there are curve balls, large and small, thrown our way. For example, the montage of Megan's cluttered calendar of extracurricular activities gives way to scenes of her firing off a nine-millimeter pistol at a firing range; I don't recall Molly Ringwald busting caps. Colin turns out to be a surprisingly funny kid, just like his dad, but there's tension under the laughter. Hannah lives with her grandmother, as her depressive mom can't seem to cope and her dad had to move to Ohio for work. And Jake's self-confessed nerdiness is actually just camouflage over a slightly wounded soul; he's self-aware in a way that makes his life tougher, not easier. And as the kids talk about their lives, days become weeks become months, and the immensity of Burstein's achievement comes into focus; Warsaw Community High School may not be the place to find a perfect statistically average high school that represents America (as if any such school really exists) -- it's mostly White, impressively well-appointed, and looks fairly new -- but it's where Burstein shot, every day, for 10 months. And you get drawn into these kid's lives -- their struggles, their challenges, their triumphs -- so fiercely that you cannot help but be enthralled.
And while it's very easy to be suspicious of how media-aware these kids are, the revelations they make to the camera feel fairly unforced. There are moments where you sense the peripheral kids acting up for the camera -- when one of Megan's friends slides onto the lap of a cute boy for some hot make-out action, you cannot help but notice the wireless mic pack clipped to her belt, and know she's aware of it, too -- those moments are few and far between, and surrounded by sincere and real moments. Colin needs a basketball scholarship -- it's that, his dad says, or off to the Army -- and you watch as his need to impress college recruiters throws off both his game and the team's record. After a breakup, Hannah slides into a deep depression. Megan, feeling pressure to continue the family tradition of college attendance at Notre Dame, lashes out with startling viciousness and cruelty. (As Megan demonstrates, teen unkindness has always moved swiftly, but in the age of cell phones and e-mail it can literally travel at the speed of light ...) And Jake tries like crazy to have a tentative romance, which does not go at all well, and you feel him looking forward to college like a prisoner waiting for parole.
And while documentary purists while wail and gnash their teeth over the artistic enhancements Burstein provides -- computer-animated sequences where the kids articulate their hopes, their fears, their worries and more -- and the generally stylized look of the film, neither damage the seriousness and scope of Burstein's film. (Which, while it is serious, is also gently good-humored and human; these kids aren't being trotted out as show ponies or MTV-ready spectacles, they're treated like human beings.) Yes, American Teen is a pretty media-aware, media-rich experience; you could argue the same thing about the state of being a teen in America.
And as our foursome moves through the year, the changes and shifts in their lives not only surprise us, but they also surprise the people going through them. American Teen may not have breadth, but it's immensely deep; it's an inch wide but a mile thick. And at first, you wonder why Burstein -- who created immensely compelling narrative documentaries with On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture -- is bothering with such prosaic, everyday material. (Before my Sundance screening of American Teen, I heard a critic for a national magazine grumble a bit about the prospect of seeing the film: " ... I think there's less than meets the eye to kids today. ..." ) But between her artistic choice to emulate the look and feel of the fiction high school movies we all grew up on (which engages us subconsciously) and the openness and sincerity of her subjects (which engages us consciously), we realize that she's found immensely compelling stories in the lives of the students she's followed.
As the school year moves to a close, I actually found myself briefly fantasizing about Burstein following in the footsteps of Michael Apted's Up series of films and checking in with her subjects at regularly-spaced intervals: American College, American Job, American Wedding. I immediately recognized how that was not, in fact, a good idea, but I think that idle thought was just my way of saying that, over the course of American Teen, I had come to care about these kids, and was frankly a little sad to see them go. If you seek out American Teen thinking it'll be a decisive work of sociology, you're going to be out of luck; if you're looking for a salacious expose of youth gone mad, you're out of luck again. But if you seek out American Teen looking for an engaging, stylish and surprisingly smart piece of non-fiction entertainment, you're going to be completely won over.