EmptySundance Film Festival
PARK CITY -- Since "Rebel Without a Cause," high school kids have been trying to figure out who they are in movies and documentaries. In "American Teen," Nanette Burstein chronicles the senior year of four 17-year-olds in Warsaw, Ind. Perhaps because the issues never really change for teenagers, the film seems both revealing and superficial. It's a slickly made and entertaining slice of life that could be a big hit among kids who never get tired of seeing themselves on screen. Paramount Vantage picked up the film at Sundance.
Burstein was searching for an economically mixed town with one high school in the Midwest that reflected American values. She found it in Warsaw Community High School and proceeded to film four students and their friends for the next 10 months.
For her subjects, Burstein chose a rich popular girl, a nerdy guy, an artistic outsider and a jock, following them into locker rooms, classrooms, parties and hang outs. Her patience pays off, and she manages to insinuate herself into their lives, sometimes too much so. To watch the free-spirited and good-natured Hannah, who dreams of going to California to make movies, sobbing after she's broken up with her boyfriend feels a little like an invasion of privacy.
One wonders if events are ever the same when the camera watches them. Intimate scenes, like when Gordy's father explains to him that either he excels on the basketball court and gets a college scholarship or else he's going into the Army, seem more staged than spontaneous. And in the interest of keeping the film breezy and tying the stories together, the editing style tends to smooth out the rough edges. So even when the kids are having serious meltdowns, it doesn't feel like it matters that much.
Soul searching here is reduced to a series of animated segments where we literally get to move inside the characters' eyes to supposedly see what makes them tick. It's a clever device, looks great and it's fun, but it isn't very revealing.
So what if Megan, the privileged rich kid, has more problems then you might imagine and a dark secret that explains her psychic wounds? Perhaps the least interesting character is Jake, the video game geek and marching band member who has an awful case of adolescent acne that is probably going to scar him for life, but it's not explored.
For all of its access and exposure, "American Teen" seems skin-deep. It's well shot, with good production values and lots of cool music. But it's fun and facile in much the same way reality TV is. You may have a good time, but you'll hate yourself in the morning.
Director: Nanette Burstein
Producers: Nanette Burstein, Jordan Roberts, Eli Gonda, Chris Huddleston
Executive producers: Elisa Pugliese, Patrick Morris, Molly Thompson, Nancy Dubuc, Rob Sharenow
Directors of cinematography: Laela Kilbourn, Wolfgang Held, Robert Hanna
Music: Michael Penn
Editors: Mary Manhardt, Tom Haneke, Nanette Burstein
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating