Filmmaker Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, On the Ropes) hates how teens are shown in most movies and TV shows.
"I feel like [fictional films and reality TV shows about teens] are not that honest often, or just don't go into the complexities of being a teenager," Burstein told Comingsoon.net. "Fiction films … have a fairy tale quality, and a lot of the reality shows are either mean-spirited or they tend to focus on the wealthiest teens in America. I felt like there needs to be something really good about being that age."
And so, she spent the 2005-06 school year following seniors with cameras to capture their true stories. The result is American Teen, a documentary that feels like John Hughes-scripted fiction. This is surely not a documentary about teen life—with expert interviews, statistics, or an investigative approach—but a narrative stitched together from footage of teen life. Shot in smalltown Warsaw, Indiana, it tells of the conflicts, dreams, failures and triumphs that occur between the first day of senior year and graduation day. And it does so well. The emotive and compelling documentary made a huge splash at this year's Sundance Film Festival and created a studio bidding war for the film.
In many ways, Burstein's approach works better than a lot of scripted teen fiction. The characters are all multi-layered and complex. You see the reality that everyone is broken—no matter how they look on the outside. Unlike Hollywood, no villain is completely evil. In fact, as the film tells the story of its de facto villain, the mean Queen Bee Megan, you see how much she is actually hurting and overcompensating. At one point, I was surprised to find myself tearing up with joy for her.