DVD Release Date:  December 21, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  July 25, 2008 (limited)
Rating:  PG-13 (for some strong language, sexual material, drinking and smoking—all involving teens.)
Genre:  Documentary
Run Time:  95 min
Director:  Nanette Burstein
Cast:  Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing

There’s what we hope our kids will be, and then there’s what is—and “what is” is American Teen

Even if your little Tommy or Sally is more virtuous than the teenagers seen here, at the very least it's fair to say that while levels of conduct vary, American Teen honestly portrays how every teenager feels—and does so in compelling fashion.  Despite being a documentary, this is as entertaining, emotional and complex (and well-constructed) a teen flick as anything since the best of John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Shot in Warsaw, Indiana over the course of one school year, American Teen follows the lives of five students from the class of 2006 as they experience their senior year.  The core stereotypes are there: the Homecoming Queen (Megan), the Jock (Colin), his friend (Mitch), the geek (Jake), and the rebel (Hannah).  Though living in separate worlds they inevitably cross paths (at times in surprising ways), yet the experience of angst, confusion and hope remains a constant.

Unless you’re completely naïve there’s little that’s surprising in American Teen, but it creates an impact by being consistently revealing.  People are a mix of self-awareness and utter cluelessness—a dichotomy that’s magnified during the teenage years—and we learn as much about these kids through their own candidness as their own stupidity.

Megan consciously wields her popularity with confidence yet instantly resorts to victim status (and vulgar manipulation) when things don’t go her way.  Colin knows his ticket to college is basketball, yet that pressure leads him to do selfish things.  Jake is fully aware of what makes him a “loser,” yet he embraces those tendencies despite wanting to change them.  Mitch is the most assured yet even he struggles with how he’s perceived, and Hannah’s attractive spirit is constantly sabotaged by her emotional fragility.

So as with any good film, you become invested in these people as much for their strengths as their weaknesses, although Megan’s sense of entitlement is so rudely displayed that even when a personal tragedy is revealed it’s hard to be completely empathetic as her general conduct is unforgivable.  On the flip side there is Hannah, an attractive girl that you root for who is from a broken family and has big dreams for her future—and has the drive to realize them—so long as she doesn’t sabotage her present. 

The source of all their shortcomings becomes instantly apparent, sadly, when we meet the parents.  Lord have mercy.  One applies too much pressure, another is way too lenient, and yet another is verbally abusive.  You sit there shaking your head at some of the things they say (or don’t) and permit (or disparage).  It’s a miracle these teens are as stable as they are, considering, and the honest depiction of both kids and adults makes American Teen as instructive a self-examination tool for the parent as the teenager.

Oscar-nominated documentarian Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) does a magnificent job of finding the stories and the characters within them.  I never found myself impatiently waiting to return to one over the other as each individual narrative was equally compelling.  Indeed, a couple actually intersect in what is the film’s most interesting development as two kids from opposite cliques become close even as the competing social forces may tear them apart.  It’s a moving portrait of what should be socially possible, yet rarely is, as the herd mentality of peer pressure can test even the most genuine connections.