“High school is the bottom. Being a teenager sucks, but that’s the point! Surviving it is the whole point!”
-Christian Slater from “Pump Up the Volume“
High school. Like you, I do not miss those years, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back through all that nonsense, and I see this even though I have credit card debt to pay off. The peer pressure, the rejection, the heartache, the unfulfilled longings and all the pressure which is unloaded on us by our parents when it comes to getting into a good college; I am stunned I survived any and all of it.
Still, I wonder what it is like for kids today. They have all these new advances in technology I never got to play with back then, but has the way we deal with each other in high school changed? Are people nicer now after horrible school shootings like Columbine or Parkland, or have things gotten worse? After you see “American Teen,” I think you will agree life as a teenager and in high school are neither better nor worse. In fact, everything remains the same. There are the cliques and the pressure to get into a prestigious college, and there are those who fit in and those who feel endlessly rejected. It has been more than 20 years since I graduated from high school, and kids still go through the same crap.
“American Teen” is a documentary by Nanette Burstein who previously directed “The Kid Stays in The Picture” and “On the Ropes.” Here, she gives us “The Breakfast Club” as if it were a documentary as she follows the lives of various teenagers as they go through their senior year at a small-town Indiana high school. There is nothing too edgy about this film, and it doesn’t deal much with drugs, sex, or school violence. What she is more interested in is taking the stereotypes of the jock, the nerd, the rebel, and the beautiful to where turns them upside down as she looks closely at the individuals inhabiting those stereotypes.
Burstein has gone on record and said that she considers herself a part of the “John Hughes generation,” and it’s very interesting how she takes the tropes of Hughes’ films and melds them into a movie filled with real people.
Unlike reality shows such as “The Hills” or “The Real World,” I think “American Teen” has a lot more to offer in terms of how teens deal with real problems, and I think it is also good viewing for those who are in high school right now as many of them likely think they are the only ones going through what they are going through. It’s important for them to know they are not alone, and we also need to listen to what they have to say.
Of all the subjects here, the most appealing one is Hannah Bailey, the liberal rebel of the highly conservative town of Warsaw, Indiana where this documentary takes place. She starts off as a free spirit and, deep down, she is the person many of us wanted to be like: free spirited and unconcerned of how others think of her. However, she is forever shattered when her boyfriend whom she was madly in love with, ends up breaking up with her after they have made out. Her emotional devastation is hard to watch as we have all dealt with the harsh pangs of young love. Hannah ends up getting so depressed to where she cannot bring herself to go to school out of shame and embarrassment. With her breakup comes a feeling of worthlessness which can easily engulf a young person and change who they are. From the start to the very end, Hannah is the one you root for the most.
We also have Jake Tusing, the nerd with a face ravaged with acne which cries out endlessly for the nearest dermatologist. Jake is a guy you at times feel sorry for, but you later find yourself cringing when he opens his mouth. A painfully shy kid who still suffers from the emotional scars he suffered in junior high, we see him being very uncomfortable around large groups of people. When a new girl moves into town, he sees this as his opportunity to get a girlfriend, something he hopes to acquire before he graduates. But soon, his defenses go up and he begins to push people away before they have the chance to do the same to him. In retrospect, Jake almost comes across as a real-life Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener from “Welcome to The Dollhouse” as he goes from being likable to unlikable throughout the documentary.
Then there is Colin Clemens (no relation to Roger Clemens), the star of the high school basketball team in a town the sport is like a sacred religion. We see his dad constantly pressuring him to make those shots in the game when he is not doing his Elvis impersonation act for the local senior citizens in town (and who refuse to believe Elvis is dead). This intense pressure comes from the fact Colin’s family does not have enough money to send him to college, and his best hope is to impress the college recruiters so he can get a basketball scholarship. Colin comes across as a good kid whose parental influence leads him to make some crucial and painful mistakes, but he becomes a better person and teammate by this documentary’s end.
Finally, we have the most popular person at the school, and she proves to be a bitch beyond repair when you cross her. She is Megan Krizmanich, the daughter of a prominent local surgeon, the student council vice president and the homecoming queen. She is what many of us would call “little miss perfect” even though she is far from it. Like Regina George from “Mean Girls” in that she is one of the most popular people in high school as well as the one most loathed by the audience. She is under enormous pressure to get accepted into Notre Dame as all her family members have been accepted there. I won’t spoil it if she gets in or not, but when she gets the letter from the school, her expression isn’t so much happiness or sadness as it is sheer relief that the waiting is over.
One of this documentary’s taglines is “which one were you?” Taking that into account, you should be able to see yourself in all of these individuals regardless of what high school stereotype you ended up being trapped in. The pressures, the heartaches, the isolation; we have experienced it all. After watching “American Teen,” you may have felt like you lived through your high school years all over again. The high school pecking order on the social ladder has not changed one iota, and it remains an emotional boiling pot in the life of an adolescent.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
-Kurt Russell from “Escape From LA“
I wanted to know everything there was to know about these kids as “American Teen” went on, and I wanted them to succeed in what they wanted to do and to be happy. Happiness can be in such short supply when you are in high school at times. This documentary is filled with animated interludes which serve to illustrate the inner lives of its main characters. With Jake, we see him as the hero of those “Legend of Zelda” games he loves to play, rescuing the princess he longs to have as a girlfriend. With Colin, we see his dream of playing on an NCAA team after graduating from college. Hannah’s animation interlude illustrates her painful post-break up existence as she feels so differently about herself, and of her deep-seated fear of ending up like her manic-depressive mother. Then you have Megan’s moment which you can’t help but laugh at as she sees Notre Dame as this heavenly place where she can meet a diverse crowd of people who are nothing like those she picks on at school.
This is a great documentary to watch with an audience because everyone is bound to have a strong emotional reaction to what is going on throughout. We share in Hannah’s heartbreak and her triumphs as she proves to be the real hero here. We cringe and laugh at the socially awkward Jake as he stumbles through conversations with potential girlfriends. When he talks, you can’t help but put your hands in your face and shake your head in disbelief. With Megan, you feel a hatred and resentment which dissipates when you get to know her better. All the same, she reminds me of the one blonde cheerleader in my Shakespeare class who interrupted the teacher by saying, “THERE IS A RUN IN MY NYLONS!”
All that said, “American Teen” is by no means a perfect documentary. It does feel a bit staged, and it probably was in some cases. Also, part of me wished Burstein went a little deeper with other subjects. We see Hannah’s best friend is a homosexual who is always there for her when her self-esteem plummets, but we never really get to know who he is or of how he deals with living in a very conservative town. I also wanted to see more of the adults and of how they went about raising these young adults. We complain about the way kids act, but a lot of it has to do with the way their parents spoil them rotten. Trust me, this was a big problem in the town I grew up in.
Granted, Burstein wanted things to be shown from as much of the teenagers’ lives as possible, but the adults factor into this more than what we are shown. While “American Teen” does show the relationship Colin has with his Elvis impersonating dad, we don’t get as much with the other kids. Megan ends up committing a slanderous act of vandalism which she gets busted for, but her dad isn’t so much mad at her for doing it as he is with her not being able to keep from being caught. You have to wonder what kind of values these parents are instilling in their children as some are not the least bit healthy.
We also Hannah determined to move to San Francisco, California so she can pursue a career in television and film. She is so determined to get out of Indiana and lead a life which is anything but mundane, and we want to see her accomplish this regardless of how the odds are against her. But her mother ends up telling her she is “not special, and this is one of “American Teen’s” most wounding moments. I think any parent who tells their child this should be slapped. The world is tough enough without our parents breaking us down like that.
There is also a good deal of profanity bleeped out here. “American Teen” is rated PG-13 despite the f-word being mentioned only a couple of times. If the MPAA thinks they are trying to protect the kids old enough to see this movie from the bad words contained in it, they have failed. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bad language I heard on the playgrounds of the elementary and junior high schools I attended. It reminds me of Roger Ebert’s arguing how “The Breakfast Club” should have been PG-13 instead of R because he felt it was more than appropriate for teenagers. I couldn’t agree more, and the beeping out of “bad” language is ridiculous and only draws more attention to what the MPAA is trying to suppress.
Whatever you may think about “American Teen,” you have to give these kids credits for bravery because what they did here will forever be captured on celluloid and burned into our memories forever. It will be interesting to see a follow up to this documentary on where these kids are today. I’m not talking so much about the effect of the movie itself, but of the effect their years in high school have on their lives today. After graduation, they have nowhere to go but up, but life still has its pitfalls. How will their past inform their present?
* * * ½ out of * * * *