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American Teen
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Bastards Of Young"
1 stars

Although it is something that most observers have a tendency to forget or ignore, the simple fact is that virtually every documentary film ever made is as carefully constructed as any fiction film--even more so in some cases. In reducing hours and hours of footage into a cohesive film, a documentarian compresses timelines, shapes narrative arcs by the careful positioning of footage and can turn a person into a hero worth cheering for or an enemy worth booing depending on how they want us to feel about them. The trick is to figure out a way to make those elements somehow seem real and organic despite the fact that we instinctively know that we are being manipulated. When they pull this trick off, the results can be so utterly compelling that they can convince us that we are somehow seeing reality seamlessly unfolding before our eyes, whether it is working along the lines of a more traditional documentary structure or it is an example of the more personality-driven approach favored by filmmakers like Michael Moore . When they can’t pull it off, on the other hand, all that we can on the screen is the artifice required to get it there in the first place and as a result, the entire thing winds up feeling fake and hollow. Of all the many artistic and aesthetic crimes committed by “American Teen,” a film has been designated by some as this year’s documentary breakthrough (a la “March of the Penguins” or “An Inconvenient Truth”) ever since it premiere last winter at Sundance, the biggest one is the fact that I never bought any of what transpired on the screen for a second. This would be bad enough if the film were the brainchild of some callow newcomer but what makes it especially objectionable is that it was made by Nanette Burstein, who previously co-directed the highly acclaimed documentaries “On the Ropes” and “The Kid Stays In the Picture.” How is it possible that the person responsible for two such fascinating and accomplished examples of the documentary form could possibly perpetrate something so glib and shallow that it makes “The Real Cancun” look thoughtful and penetrating by comparison?

Set in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana--the birthplace of Theodore Dreiser and Ambrose Bierce--the film follows the lives of a handful of archetypal students over the course of their eventful senior years. There is the Popular Girl, Megan Krizmanich, who rules the school’s social scene with ever-present sidekick Ali Wikalinska and is perfectly willing to crush anyone who has the misfortune to cross her or her self-imposed authority. There is the Jock, Colin Clemens, who is the star player on the school basketball team. There is the Nerd, Jake Tusing, a gawky geek with bad skin, bad hair and an all-consuming videogame habit who has vowed to finally get himself a girlfriend this year. There is the Hunk, Mitch Reinholt, a studly athlete who disrupts the school social structure when he finds himself attracted to someone outside of his particular circle of popularity Finally, there is the Quirky Misfit, Hannah Bailey, the arty offspring of a distant father and a manic-depressive mother who isn’t quite sure of what she wants to do with her life but knows for sure that no matter what it is, she will have to break away from Warsaw in order to do it because no one in town or at her school could ever possibly appreciate her hip and offbeat nature.

Over the course of the next 10 months, covering the 2005-2006 school year, the kids go through various ups and downs that are all magically captured without fail by the ever-present cameras. Megan’s Queen Bee behavior begins to spiral out of control--when she gets her hands on a topless photo that an acquaintance has e-mailed to her boyfriend, she forwards it on to the entire student body as a cruel joke and when another student council member short-circuits her own plans for a prom theme, she sneaks out in the middle of the night (with a camera crew, of course) to deface his house with toilet paper and homophobic graffiti. Colin begins to crack under the intense pressure that his father--a former jock who is now an Elvis impersonator--is placing upon him to succeed (if he doesn’t win a much-needed scholarship, he is informed, he may well have to wind up joining the military instead when he graduates) that he begins to choke at inopportune times on the court. Jake scours the new crop of female freshmen for a potential girlfriend and actually succeeds in finding one until the inevitable moment arrives where she realizes that she can do better and dumps him (while texting someone else at the same time, mind you) for someone who is described as “the marching-band stud.” As for Hannah, she is dumped early on by her boyfriend and since she is such a delicate flower whose pain no one can possibly understand, she responds by staying home from school for 17 days in order to avoid the humiliation of having to be amongst hundred of classmates who apparently have nothing better to do with their lives than to contemplate her romantic travails. When she finally does manage to pull herself together and return, she vows to give up on romance for good but before too long, she finds herself unexpectedly dating Mitch and discovering that he has a true soul behind his jock exterior--there is no possible way that union could ever lead to additional heartbreak, is there?

As you can probably guess from the above summation, the template that “American Teen” is working from is inspired less from the works of other documentarians as Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles Brothers than it is from the eternally popular chronicles of suburban teen angst created by John Hughes in the 1980’s--even the poster for the film is a direct homage to the imagery used to sell “The Breakfast Club” twenty-odd years ago. Once Burstein introduces her characters by presenting them as the archetypes found in those films, I was expecting her to tell a story that would defuse the mythology that Hughes created in those films that was just as artificial in its own way as the equally dippy teen films that he was offering correctives to with his work. (I suppose that I should not at this point that even as a white suburban teen who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, prime Hughes country, in the 1980’s and nursed a crush on Molly Ringwald during that time to boot, I still found it difficult to relate to his films as anything other than utter fantasy on the same level of believability as “Labyrinth.”) However, as the film went on, it began to dawn on me that Burstein was less interested in exploding those clichés than in reinforcing them by showing just how quickly and easily contemporary teenagers are willing to conform to those characteristics in lieu of carving out identities for themselves that didn’t merely ape attitudes seen in popular culture. (If Burstein were to make the film today, my guess is that she would have found time to include an Acerbic Girl who suddenly finds herself pregnant and if there wasn’t one available in a family way, she might have had a Teamster take care of that particular job--one of the few times in which a Teamster could lie down on the job while doing his job, but I kid the Teamsters.)

Not only that, you get the sense that Burstein is deliberately leaving out anything that doesn’t conform to something found in a John Hughes movie so as to avoid allowing any taste of troubling reality to intrude upon the narrative structure that she is trying to ape, even when it promises to be much more interesting than the familiar stories that she is spinning. For example, you will recall that I mentioned a friend of Megan’s who is humiliated when her indiscreet naked photo is passed on to all of her classmates. You would think that under those circumstances, the girl would never associate with Megan again, except possibly to stab her in the eye with a hairbrush in the locker room. And yet, if I am not mistaken, we see here once again hanging out with Megan and acting as if nothing had happened, presumably because she feels that sacrificing her personal dignity is nowhere near as important as sacrificing her social standing. If Burstein had explored that particular thread of tragic thinking, it might have yielded some intriguing insights into the mindset of contemporary teens but she just lets it fade from view so that we can get more glimpses of Jake’s self-pitying nerdiness or Hannah’s self-pitying artiness. Compare this to Burstein’s brilliant 1999 film “On the Ropes,” which began as an exploration of several aspiring boxers training for success in the ring until it slowly and inexorably transformed into something far different and far deeper, and you will begin to understand just how far Burstein has fallen this time around as a documentarian.

The artificial nature of “American Teen” isn’t limited to the broad parameters of the film’s basic concept--almost every individual scene has bit of cheesiness to it that caused me to doubt the veracity of everything that I was seeing. Sometimes it is the way that the camera inadvertently captures the behind-the-scenes mechanisms in ways that destroy the illusion of reality--it is kind of hard to buy the emotion of a sequence involving two kids making out when it is clear that they are both wearing body mikes tor record what they are saying. Sometimes it is the way that no matter what startling event is going on in the lives of the characters, there always seems to a few cameras around to capture it for posterity in ways that grow increasingly unlikely after a while. (When that naked photo makes the rounds, for example. we get a montage of people supposedly discovering it for the first time and later on, we are there when one character breaks up with another via text message.) There is the way that the film conveniently happens upon shocking plot twists or surprising bits of character development (such as a secret in Megan’s past that most likely wouldn’t have been that secret in the catty halls of a contemporary high school) at just the moment for maximum dramatic impact. There is the fact that each of the characters has an epiphany of some sort that they are able to relate to us in perfectly-phrased speeches that come across as so polished that any sense of genuine spontaneity seems to have been ruthlessly scrubbed away. Now for all I know, every single thing that I have described could well have transpired in exactly the way that the film describes and without any coachings, urgings or requests for multiple takes. However, even if that were true, it wouldn’t matter because Burstein has put them together in such a fraudulent-seeming manner that it makes the blatantly chopped, channeled and endlessly tinkered likes of “The Hills” or “The Real World” seem like the rawest cinema verite by comparison.

The final nail in the film’s coffin is the inescapable fact that none of the characters (I hesitate to suggest that they are real people) that are being followed around are even remotely likable or interesting. Although supposedly separated by issues of class and popularity, it turns out that they do have a few things in common after all--they are all resolutely boring, they are all too self-absorbed to recognize how boring they truly are, they seem to have absolutely no interest in the world around them except for the few things that immediately involve them and their unabashed willingness to parade themselves in front of the cameras in an effort to gain instant stardom is embarrassing at best and pathetic at worst. Of our would-be heroes, the least offensive of the bunch is Colin the Jock and that is only because his is the only storyline that doesn’t feel completely manipulated by outside forces (at least until the end, when his entire future inevitably rests on his success in the final basketball game of the season). Megan is a hateful bitch--not necessarily a problem except for the fact that she isn’t a very interesting hateful bitch (she is kind of like what Tracy Flick, the anti-heroine of “Election,” might have been like after a lobotomy) and the last-minute revelation about her tragic past that is deployed in an effort to make her seem more three-dimensional is perhaps the most shameless bit of exploitation in a film chock-full of such moves. Jake the Nerd is the kind of deliberately abrasive personality who tries so hard to cultivate a persona for himself as the gawky loser that you flinch whenever he appears on the screen and his wheedling attempts to get himself a girlfriend are creepy to the extreme--based on his appearance here, my guess is that at the end of the year, he was voted “Most Likely to Stalk Uma Thurman.”

Then there is Hannah. Sweet and misunderstood Hannah. Hannah the rare and delicate blossom trying to bloom in the harsh and unyielding soil of Warsaw despite no one understanding how special she is. Hannah the quirky outsider who is being positioned as the film’s breakout star (do real documentaries have such things?) with magazine profiles in “Entertainment Weekly” and a gig as a guest blogger for the New York Times. I hate Hannah. Rather than being the spunky and iconoclastic rebel that she clearly wants people to believe her to be, she is actually a self-aggrandizing drama queen who is about as edgy as that hipster clothing store at the shopping mall that is comfortably nestled in between the Cheesecake Factory and Spencer’s Gifts. (Yes, such places still exist and yes, I am surprised to discover that as you are.) Look, I spent plenty of time during my high-school years hanging out with Hannah types and even at their worst, they were never close to be as grating or annoying as she is here. Seriously--seventeen days away from school because of a broken heart? Even Anna Karenina responded to heartbreak in a slightly more dignified manner than that, though in Hannah‘s favor, her gesture doesn‘t screw up anyone‘s commute. Hopefully, Hannah will eventually grow up, get over herself and grow into the thoughtful artiste that she wants us to believe that she is--based on the evidence supplied here, she seems determined to show the world what Diablo Cody might have been like without any of the pesky talent to get in the way.

A wise man once said that the best way to critique a movie was to go out and make another movie. In the case of “American Teen,” that job has been made a little easier because there are any number of films out there that have provided the kind of excellent and thought-provoking observations of the perils and pleasures of the teenage years that it utterly lacks. On the documentary front, there is Frederick Wiseman’s “High School” and Michael Apted’s revered series of “Up” documentaries. On the fictional side, a short list of great films would include the likes of “Heathers,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Say Anything,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Election,’ “My Summer of Love” and “Juno”--even though they may have been made in different times, the basic truths that they have to impart about the rocky world of adolescence are the kind that contemporary audiences can easily relate to despite the outdated fashions and questionable soundtrack choices. Hell, even a bit of blatant fluff like “Gossip Girl” at least seems somewhat interested and in tune with the youth culture that it is exploiting. “American Teen,” on the other hand, is a crock from the first frame to the last and to these eyes, it is the most shallow and inauthentic film that I have seen so far in 2008 and yes, I am including “Zombie Strippers.”

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16952&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/01/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2008 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/05/12 Thorbjorn Sloth One can learn a lot about American youth culture 5 stars
10/07/11 Dr. Edwars Richtofen Excellant. Worth watching 5 stars
8/10/08 George Barksdale Nothing new on teenage front 1 stars
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  25-Jul-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 23-Dec-2008


  DVD: 23-Dec-2008

Directed by
  Nanette Burstein

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