American Teen is one of the realist experiences you’ll have at the movies this year. That’s fitting for a number of reasons. One: it’s a documentary, so it should be real. Two: the five “characters” in the film are real people with real emotions and no censored expressions (i.e. The Hills, The Real World). This is far from “reality” TV. This is real life.
The film follows five teenagers through their senior year of high school in Warsaw, Indiana, a white, podunk town in middle America. The clichés are all there. There’s the popular, bitchy, backstabbing mean girl, Megan. The nice-guy, Jay Leno chinned jock, Colin. The good-looking, kind-hearted, Mitch. The self-described, nerdy band geek, Jake. And the rebellious daring, Hannah. Each character is presented acutely and fairly.
American Teen will expose your best and worst moments from high school. It’s effective because it’s accurate. I personally lived through some of the issues and experiences that the characters go through. The bad skin, the polarizing fear of being ridiculed, the lashing out to hide your real feelings, the breakups, the falling in love, the day to day battle that takes in the hellish hallways. Each character has down and out moments, and each character faces moments of extreme happiness.
The standout of the group is the dynamic Hannah Bailey, who cannot wait to escape Warsaw and explore a west coast life as a filmmaker. Even though her screen time is equal to the rest of the cast, Hannah’s buoyant personality is remarkably refreshing in a place where conservative ideals seem so etched in everyone’s head. I related to Hannah more than the other characters, I felt her pain because I experienced high school similar to how she did. But that isn’t to say you will too. Everyone who sees the film will compare themselves to one of the characters. And that’s part of American Teen’s fun… which one were you?
Director Nanette Burnstien (The Kid Stays in the Picture) shot over 1,000 hours of footage of the five teens, scrapping it down to two hours of narrative bliss. The film is fast, fierce and fun. You'll hate (or at least be frustrated with) each character at least once. You may be repulsed by Megan but sympathize with a story from her past. You may adore Mitch but despise him for what he writes in a text message.
The characters in American Teen each have an arch that most Hollywood films get wrong. It’s high school at it’s most honest. Brutally real. Inexplicably painful. Yet, at times, overwhelmingly joyful. I dare you not to ask yourself… which one were you? A