top of page
  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "American Teen" (2008)

In Benjamin Nugent’s book "American Nerd," Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Fieg says “I’ve always referred to life as perpetual high school because it never stops.” He’s right. The ads for the documentary American Teen show us glimpses of The Jock, The Geek, The Princess, The Rebel and The Heartthrob and stops by asking us “Who were you?” It’s almost a misleading question. Not much has changed since high school. So, it should come as no surprise that the movie didn’t have me thinking “who was I?”, but rather, “who am I?” Hence, the title should not mislead you into thinking this is strictly a “teen movie.” No matter your age, it will most certainly reach you.

This is only one of the many little triumphs lurking within Nanette Burstein’s painfully funny examination of life in an Indiana suburban high school during a typical senior year. It’s a documentary that studies a microcosm, but doesn’t use it to make any grand, heavy-handed statement on the state of our world. It picks out five students to observe for a year and there’s not one who is less interesting than the next. On paper, it sounds like a fictional teenage movie made up of clichés we’ve seen a hundred times, yet because it’s a documentary, it reveals that sometimes clichés exist for a reason. They remain true.

I mean, look at this. Megan (The Princess) is the hot blonde, destined for Prom Queen success. She believes in prank calls to people who were once her friends and in getting even when the situation demands it. The artsy Hannah (The Rebel) plays guitar in a band and feels woefully misunderstood by everyone. After her first major break-up, she misses two weeks of school. Colin (The Jock) plays basketball and absolutely must get a scholarship, since his parents cannot afford to send him to college on the money they make. Mitch (The Geek) has few friends, plays video games and makes it his mission to get a girlfriend. Geoff (The Heartthrob) also runs with the jocks and is the guy many women want to date, but he has his eye on someone unexpected.

In a fictional narrative, it wouldn’t be hard to guess where all of this is headed, but because these tried-and-true storylines exist in documentary form, we don’t quite know what to anticipate, but we actually do care about these teenagers. Like us before them, they are overdramatic, self-centered and a little desperate for attention. I certainly was at their age, and thankfully the movie is not out to hold them up for ridicule. The filmmakers know that there is something inherently touching and recognizable about watching a teenager go through their first break-up or seeing two people begin to date against the wishes of their friends.

The movie respects its characters and their plights. For instance, when Mitch talks about his desire for a girlfriend, we get an animated sequence not unlike a videogame where Mitch gets his wish. Director Burstein employs this device for each of the five characters, each of them distinct and each representing their state of mind (Hannah’s dark and brooding animated sequence comes first and it is admittedly jarring, but stay with it). At times, these students have hopelessly naïve and idealistic notions about love and what college will be like. We laugh knowingly, not just at these notions, but at our own naiveté as well. We so wish it were all true. We really do.

Inevitably during American Teen, the viewer will feel that the subjects might be playing for the camera and you would be right to assume that. But then again, don’t teenagers do that anyway even without a documentary crew? Hasn’t youtube become the ultimate public diary of teen angst? Can you honestly make a documentary about teenagers and not expect a little melodrama? If the subjects of American Teen are pumping up the angst for the cameras, it’s almost a credit to them for being this media savvy in the first place, which in itself is enough of a statement of our times. Can you honestly name a documentary where a subject didn’t once act or react based on the fact that a camera happened to be in the room?

Teenagers will probably see this movie, but parents of teenagers should see it. Not because of some alarmist, post-Columbine wake-up call (it’s pretty clear that these kids will eventually be alright), but because it demonstrates that some truths remain universal, no matter what your generation. Teenagers will obviously recognize themselves in it, but they could also become inspired by it in the best way possible. This is a film about stepping outside yourself and taking a bigger look at the world, to ask that girl or guy out you’ve had your eye on all these months/years and to get the hell out of town to live your own life.

American Teen is a documentary with simple goals. It wants nothing more than to capture a slice of life we can all relate to. It’s structured like fictional narrative, but its effortlessness is part of its charm and as a result, it ends up being more satisfying than many documentaries that try and take on the world. I imagine when the subjects look back on this film 20 years from now, these people will cringe at the sight of their behavior, to which I can only offer this bit of truth: You weren’t the first and you certainly won’t be the last. As for me, I was the nerd, the freak and the geek. Still am and proud of it.

bottom of page