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 "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."

Hannah Bailey

Hannah Bailey

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.

Colin Clemens

Colin Clemens

Burnstein, knowing that good story starts with characters, didn't pick these kids at random. She masterfully chose those with depth, charisma and unfolding drama out of thousands of teens that she auditioned. In the end, the film follows four seniors closely: Hannah, the dreamer who feels trapped by the conservative little town and plans to escape to San Francisco; Megan, the homecoming queen who risks letting her family down if she can't get into Notre Dame; Colin, the star basketball player who will have to go into the Army if he can't get a b-ball scholarship; and Jake, the awkward band geek who longs to have someone love him. A fifth student, Mitch, is more of a supportive player brought into the story when his path crosses those of other students.

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Maybe the biggest takeaway from the story is how familiar and relatable the high school journey can be—it changes very little. Teen films tend to be repetitious because, well, our high school experiences are so similar.

Unfortunately, no students with any noticeable faith are featured. And that's odd since the film's opening moments portray Warsaw as a town that's "mostly white and mostly Christian." However, it turns out that Mitch, who was followed all year by cameras but ended up witha minor role, is a churchgoer.Footage of him at church and youth group wasn't used. (He says he wasn't featured as one of the main subjects because his senior year wasn't "film worthy.") Because faith life is not depicted, many of the teens (but not all) participate in a whole laundry list of objectionable activities (see the Family Corner below). It's too bad the film couldn'tfeature as main subjects a true full spectrum of Warsaw kids—including a devoted Christ-followerfighting to livea counter-cultural life. But, hey, Burstein had 90 minutes to work with.

Mitch Reinholt

Mitch Reinholt

Still, the events of teen life shown here are awfully universal: dating, betrayal, struggles with self-image, popularity, fights, big sporting events, and dreaming of what comes next. Had this been a scripted teen film, the story would be pretty been-there, done-that. In fact, American Teen follows the very same high school archetypes (the jock, the nerd, the princess, etc.) of The Breakfast Club—a characteristic even referenced in an early movie poster.

But the documentary overcomes any rote predictability because of how relatable and personal the story becomes. Few writers can manufacture characters as dynamic as real people—and it pays off for Burstein. The movie is in turns hilarious, heartbreaking and tense. I laughed aloud when socially-awkward Jake tries to talk to a girl and only manages to say: "I took a shower today and then did nothing … [long pause] I got my oil changed." I cringed when one mom told her daughter, "You're not special." And I mourned when Hannah—destroyed by the pain of premarital sex—says, "I'm worthless, disgusting. I'm nothing. I'm only Joel's ex-girlfriend."

The most divisive aspect to audiences' feelings for this documentary will be their perception of how truthful it is. Because Burstein edited her footage into a captivating and tidy narrative, it's easy to assume that it must be fabricated and manipulated. After all, reality TV—especially teen serials like The Hills and Laguna Beach—have made the American public suspicious of anything claiming to be "real" by blurring the line between truth and fiction with reenacted scenes and re-shoots.

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Jake Tusing

Jake Tusing

Many viewers will naturally assume this is the case with American Teen. In fact, rumors of scripting swirled around the film at Sundance. And there are some coincidences and conveniences ("How'd they know to have cameras there?") that make you wonder. I choose to believe though, based both on seeing the film and reading interviews with Burstein, that this documentary shows the lives of four high school seniors as truthfully and naturally as following people with camera crews and boom mics can allow. "It's not scripted and I didn't make any arrangements with the kids to act a certain way," Burstein told the LA Times. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but it plays like fiction because it's so moving." I'd agree.

And it is so moving because of Burstein's methodology and meticulousness. In her year of living in Warsaw, the director filmed 1,000 hours of footage with several camera crews. They followed 10 students, and during a one-year stint in the editing room—narrowing all those hours down to 90 minutes—Burstein cut the focus to the central five Warsaw students.

But excessive footage and careful editing doesn't alone give American Teen its story, vulnerability or intimacy. That, Burstein has said, came from building trust and forming relationships. She relied on the teens to communicate what was going on and to open themselves up to her. Watching the film, it's obvious they bought into the project. Several scenes are so real, so raw, that they can be almost painful to watch. During one scene with Hannah, the runaway star of the film, I kept wondering, Why on earth would she have let the cameras roll?

Hannah gave the answer to Entertainment Weekly: "I called [Nanette] to tell her [that her boyfriend cruelly broke up with her], because I still had it in my mind that this was going to be so good for the movie. So she came over and taped for a little bit, and I wasn't even looking at the camera. I didn't care; I had more important things to think about. But then, she put the camera down and we just went back to her house and talked about it. There was that balance between filmmaker and great friend."

Because of her personal approach, this filmmaker is able to truly get inside the heads of her subjects—further than any reality TV show. I so enjoyed my time with some of these characters (including perhaps the funniest grandma ever) that I've connected to the movie's Facebook page so that their stories wouldn't end when the movie did. I think that's how American Teen best works—as a character study of complex and broken people we can understand—no matter when we graduated.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. How "true" does the film seem to you? Can a movie following real people ever completely be "true" because of the human awareness of being watched? What scenes felt like characters were putting on a show for the camera? Does the age of YouTube and reality TV change our comfort in front of cameras?
  2. How has reality TV changed how you perceive or watch non-fiction?
  3. Which teen most reminded you of yourself or your friends when in high school? How? What would you tell that character you've learned about being that way since then?
  4. What surprised you about this depiction of teen life? What insights or realizations could be helpful in relating to teens around you?
  5. How did you view the future as a teen? How does it compare to these students?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

American Teen is rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking—all involving teens. It's surprising that this film was able to avoid the R-rating. The strong language includes several uses of the f-word, most of the other major swear words and crass uses of derogatory terms for homosexuals, breasts and prostitutes. One student gives the finger to another. Three of the featured students are shown drunk or drinking (one at a party with other teens). There are a few scenes of couples kissing and a lot of sexual material discussed. After a casual hookup, one girl sends a topless photo to the guy; it is not shown but is discussed. Two girls kiss. One drunken guy gets lap dances and grinds with older women. During that scene, one woman's breasts are covered only by a bumper sticker. One boy's animated fantasy includes him killing a fellow student. There are several tense scenes of verbal arguments and bullying.

What other Christian critics are saying:

American Teen
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(5 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking—all involving teens)
Directed By
Nanette Burstein
Run Time
1 hour 35 minutes
Hannah Bailey, Jake Tusing, Megan Krizmanich
Theatre Release
August 15, 2008 by Paramount Vintage
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