It wasn't that long ago that documentaries carried the stigma of being educational first and entertaining second. As with foreign-language fare, an audience for them lingered on the fringe, and an industry was willing to offer them their very own awards, but they really weren't terribly high-profile box-office prospects... that is, until the '04-'05 summer successes of Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins made it seem perfectly okay for audiences to see, and for studios to market, a film without so much as one measly explosion in it.
But then along comes American Teen: a film openly marketed as - and arugably assembled to be - anything but a documentary that finds itself underperforming in its current limited runs (it goes wide this Friday). Last May, I witnessed a group of young women leaving whatever indie they caught at Washington D.C's Landmark E Street Cinema as they approached the film's poster and wondered aloud if someone was remaking The Breakfast Club, with a tone that suggested neither horror nor concern, nor any great interest in the big, fat what-if scenario placed before them.
What I wonder now is, at what point did we begin to craft documentary filmmaking specifically to the masses, and then what happens when the masses simply don't show?
I had seen American Teen just the month before at that point, and I was still mulling over my thoughts on the film (much as I am now). I had left the film with an immediate feeling of having been entertained, despite the questionable filmmaking tactics at work; yet it was these very discrepencies of behind-the-scenes craftsmanship that began coming to mind over the awkward and touching moments that made the subjects more endearing than the drama which surrounded them. I thought there were moments of universal truth - the suspense of opening one's acceptance letter, for example - that seemed to have been second thoughts in the grand scheme of things and subsequently my own mind.
Not a week later came the trailer and poster that only reinforced the Breakfast Club comparisons which bothered me most about the film. Why did the labels of the Geek, the Jock, the Rebel, and the Popular Girl have to be so eagerly applied? Were these kids not compelling enough on their own that they had to merit easy shortcuts for their personalities? Were their hopes and dreams really so bland and boring that computer-generated cut scenes had to be throw in to speak for each of them? The marketing played up the whole "Which one were you?" angle, while I wondered if a documentary that followed kids who were, hey, anything but simplistic archetypes and proved their experiences to be just like anyone else's would have struck upon a greater sense of universal likeness and truth. The seams had begun to show themselves, and all marketing tactics aside, the more I thought about the film, the less I felt about it.
The same studio at this time last year tried to replicate the success of March of the Penguins with Arctic Tale, which similarly manipulated footage in the interests of a more conventional narrative, one that included animal flatulence gags and a sassy voiceover by Queen Latifah. Coming this fall from Disney is Morning Light, a "true-life documentary" about a yacht race. I guess when the trailer features Roy Disney holding a casting call for an ideally diverse crew of young sailors, one has to remind people just what the movie is supposed to be. After all, when's the last time you saw a movie marketed as a "manufactured drama"?
The challenge remains for documentaries to double as entertainments, and yet several filmmakers have already met that challenge this year, and no, not entirely without compromise. Man on Wire and Standard Operating Procedure both employ copious amounts of re-enactments; Dear Zachary... never once tries to be objective; and Operation Filmmaker falls apart wonderfully once the film's protagonist decides that he no longer wants to play the part. And yet those are all reasons why those films range from damn good to pretty great in quality. Their exceptions are in service of their subjects, a real story and not a safe one.
So maybe that's why no one is showing up for American Teen. For the indie crowd, maybe it's the mixed reviews (or the endless promotional screenings that have saved them from bothering to buy a ticket). For the average moviegoer, maybe it's the genuinely better blockbuster offerings. I know that I'll be giving it another look eventually, and only then - maybe then - will I be able to say whether or not I care more about what's happening within the frame than what's going on beyond it.