American Teen


Directed by: Nanette Burstein
Released: November 20, 2008
Grade: A-

Are you tired of unrealistic teen-orientated comedies?  You know what I’m talking about, right?  I speak of films where every teenager has perfect looks and an IQ of 220.  They also have an uncanny ability to solve any problem.  It’s not that I don’t like the genre – the problem is that almost every movie feels the same.  Storylines are rehashed and familiar stereotypes appear.

American Teen tries to break that mould by tackling the subject matter in a very different way.  Filmmaker Nanette Burstein wanted to make a “realistic” teen flick and the best way of doing this... was to create a documentary.  Burstein picked out a high school in Indiana and focused her camera lens on five diverse students undertaking their senior year.

Megan is the princess – a popular girl with good looks and an “up herself” attitude.  Colin is the jock – a basketball star trying hard to earn a college scholarship.  Hannah is the rebel - a moody girl who can’t wait to finish school and follow her lofty dreams.  Mitch is the heartthrob - a perfect guy who all the girls have a close eye on.  Jake is the nerd – a kid with acne, a bad haircut and no social skills.

During the film, you’ll watch these five individuals go about their lives both inside and outside the school’s walls.  They also open up to Burstein with a series of one-on-one interviews that were conducted throughout the year.  It’s not easy for people their age to open up about their inner feelings and I applaud their courage for participating.   I’d be interested to know what they think and what they’ve learned when they look back on the film in say, ten years time.

Opinions on the film have been mixed.  Some have loved it but others have been extremely critical.  They feel that certain scenes were “staged” and that in reality, it isn’t a true documentary.  Having seen the film and done some research on the internet, I believe those criticisms are justified.  It does feel fake at times and I’m positive that some scenes were re-enacted.

However, to use a popular phrase, I believe that “the means justifies the end”.  Yes, it’s had a touch-up with Hollywood’s cosmetic brush, but the essence of the characters is not lost.  When you see these teenagers being interviewed, you know that they’re speaking from the heart.  It will bring back memories from your own schooling years and remind you about the difficulties that kids face at that age.  Life ain’t easy.

What I took away most of the film was its exploration of American culture.  We don’t often use the words “United States” and “culture” in the same sentence but they are a very interesting country with their own unique quirks.  There’s the extreme pressure placed on kids to get a scholarship and go to the best college, there’s the obsession that final year students have with their senior prom, and there’s the incredible popularity and rivalry that comes with college sport.

If you want to know how hard it is to make a documentary, know that Nanette Burstein took close to 1,000 hours worth of footage.  She then had to cut this down to a 100-minute film while still getting her message across.  That’s not easy to do considering that more than 99.8% of your film has to be left on the cutting room floor.  Burstein has done a terrific job.  I also like the small animated segments that have been included and the snazzy soundtrack.

Even if you don’t like the movie, I’m confident that it will leave you with some talking points.