August 19, 2008

Nanette Burstein's American Teen documentary has hit the big screen with a limited release in major American cities.  The film purports to be a realistic view of American adolescence, as Burstein went to Warsaw, Indiana in order to follow five teenagers through their senior year in high school.  Parents who see the film will wonder if the documentary is as realistic as Burstein claims -- but they will worry that it is true.

American Teen won the Best Directing award for Burstein at the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary was enthusiastically received.  The big question now is whether the public will pay theater prices to see a film about what goes on at the local high school.  Time will tell.  In the meantime, the film is attracting controversy.

Burstein focuses on five high school seniors and, even as she insists that she did not play into stereotypes, the film's Web site advertises the central characters as "the jock," "the geek," "the rebel," "the princess," and "the heartthrob."  Forgive me, but those seem to be the most stereotypical stereotypes of American adolescence.

The documentary is situated in rural America.  Warsaw, Indiana is located just over a hundred miles outside of Chicago, which means that the town is hardly isolated.  Nevertheless, the social context of the Warsaw Community High school seems realistic and recognizable -- but not at all reassuring.

Adolescent angst is the standard fare of coming-of-age stories and a staple of literature, drama, and film.  From Romeo and Juliet and Catcher in the Rye to Rebel Without a Cause, Rumspringa, and Lord of the Flies, the insecurities, brutalities, and extremes of adolescent life have been on full display.  Over the past several decades, adolescent psychologists have supplied the concept of the identity crisis as the therapeutic framework for expecting teenagers to misbehave.  American Teen follows in this tradition.  The general idea is that adolescent Sturm und Drang is just to be expected.  Parents and other adults are to just "deal with it" and remember their own adolescent struggles.

The kids in American Teen do not come off well.  Some, such as Megan ("the Princess"), are absolutely unlikeable.  She is the rich kid of privilege who is spoiled, narcissistic, and ruthless.  Once her parents are introduced, all is explained.  When she is caught vandalizing a boy's home and is found guilty of sexual harassment her biggest worry is that she will not get into Notre Dame (she does).  She explains that she has forgiven herself and her father suggests that her real problem was being stupid enough to get caught.  Both belong on Oprah.

Jake ("the Geek"), is probably the most likeable teenager in the film, and he is almost surely the most authentic -- if simply because he is trapped within the identity that earned him the part.  He, along with Hannah ("the Rebel"), brings nihilism to life.  But, in his case at least, it is a rather happy and inconsistent nihilism -- the kind that marks the lives of so many American teens.  Hannah, like Megan, is largely explained by her parents.  She lives with neither parent, but with her elderly grandmother.  Her mother is manic depressive and her father appears to be peripheral to her life.  She wants to be remembered after she is dead, and hopes for a career in film.  Jake, meanwhile, holds to a dream of protean transformation, confiding with the camera that he might turn into "Mr. Muscle" in college.  The audience at the screening I attended laughed loudest at this point.  Burstein clearly intended to use his hope as a laugh line.

Colin ("the Jock") is another of the more honest characters.  His father, an Elvis impersonator, cannot pay for Colin to attend college and warns him that his only hope is a basketball scholarship.  It's that or the Army, dad insists.  Colin is the leading player on the Warsaw team, but he is selfish in hogging shots and hits a slump in his shooting.  He finds athletic redemption (and earns a scholarship) when he learns to be less selfish and finds his groove once again.  All Warsaw celebrates -- a reminder of the central role of high school athletics in small-town America.  In Indiana, that means basketball.