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American Teen: Reliving Those Awkward Years

Posted by goldwriting on July 27, 2008

My name is gonna be up there someday. Someone’s gonna see it up there and think, “Yeah, i wanna see her new film. Oh, and I really want a pack of Goobers too. Mmm…Goobers.”

For those movie going fans trying to resist seeing their third or fourth viewing of The Dark Knight, this weekend offered a nice exit from the gloomy streets of Gotham City. The highly buzzed about documentary American Teen from Nanette Burstein opened, giving audiences a chance to look back into their senior year of high school and relive all those little moments which feel so paltry now, but in the moment felt like the weight of the world was in each and every second. What does he/she think of me? Who should I ask to Prom? What if my friends don’t like my choice? The fun part was trying to differentiate between those questions and the other ones, the ones which would drastically change the course of our lives. Where am I going to college? How am I even going to pay for college? Who do I want to be? It can feel as if the entirety of our existence from that moment on is figured out inside those awkward and tension filled nine months. The fact we make it through at all is a miracle in itself.

In American Teen we meet five youngsters from Warsaw, IN and try to figure out which one we identify with the most, which in some cases could be more than one. First, there is Megan, the reigning Student Council President and all around over achiever, but once again the universe proves the old adage, “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”. We witness Megan turn her high school network into an army of social assassins and she herself personally attacks and destroys anyone who doesn’t play along with her plans, even her best friends. Next we have Colin, the basketball star, who feels the pressure to dominate this year on the court so he can garner interest from college recruiters, but his personal motivation for points overwhelms his desire to be a team player and continue winning games. Then there’s Mitch, another player on the basketball team and rover in the popular click, but he makes an attempt to step outside their world and intermingle with the other social sects only to find his old friends rather unaccepting. Next is Jake, the band nerd, attacked by social invisibility, stifling levels of self-doubt and acne that needs something stronger than over the counter creams. He decides finding a girlfriend, no matter who she is, will solve all his social problems and fix his life, yet when he does get chances to make that connection, he still fails to see himself as anything but the loser. Lastly there is Hannah, the wild child in the group, not belonging to any group except the one with no labels at all. She plays rock music, dresses with more color than style and refuses to imagine her life continuing under the confines of religious conservatism in Indiana. So there you have it, the main achetypes of high school existence. Which one were you?

In terms of filmmaking, this is a solid documentary. There is a nice pace to the film and some very clever tools implemented to help the audience really dive into the minds of these chosen seniors. At some point in the film, each of the main characters (minus Mitch, who was almost a side character) has an animation sequence displaying their hopes, dreams and most inner fears. Some of them are poignant, while others remind us how deluded and rose-colored our visions were of the outside world at that age. A couple times during the film there were conversations used again, but in a new context, which isn’t at all uncommon, but since the people in the scene were obviously wearing the same clothes and you could tell it took place on the same night as a conversation we were shown from months before, it drops a little bit of the honesty from the moment. You start to wonder at which point in the film were you being manipulated. As I said, this is not unheard of in the documentary world, in fact it’s part and parcel with the genre, but it needs to be done a little smoother than this.

Emotionally it is a roller-coaster ride of angst, yearning, crushing self-defeat and explosive, giddy joy. There is no doubt somewhere along the way you will see something transpire on screen and think, “I totally remember that. I was right in their shoes!”. You also might find yourself identifying with someone you initially didn’t expect, proving once again we all have different levels to our character and they all don’t rest on the surface. In the end, this film doesn’t work without the inclusion of Hannah. She stands out among the rest as the heart and soul of the piece and she is the single character that you truly want to route for. Colin plays a close second, but Hannah really struggles through much more difficult circumstances during the filming and creates the biggest arc of all the participants. According to the Facebook celeb page created for her, i’m sure by the movie studio, she has “indeed turned into an asshole”, but let’s hope this was a terribly clever way for an intellgent and creative girl to keep from being flooded by a nation of new “best friends”.

Recommendation: If your a doc fan, this is worth seeing. If you want to remember your high school existance, this is worth seeing. If you didn’t go to high school or haven’t gotten that far yet, why not see what lays ahead?

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