Four of five stars
Cast: Warsaw Community High School, Class of 2006.
Director: Nanette Burstein.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Industry rating: PG-13 for some strong
language, sexual material, some drinking
and brief smoking —
all involving teens
By Roger Moore
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
The whirl of hormones, high hopes and hysterical drama that is high school earns its close-up in "American Teen," a smart and revealing look at the Class of 2006 in Warsaw, Ind.
It's all here — well, most of it. The high school cliques (jocks, nerds, "in betweens"), the "mean girls," the social and parental pressures. Kids look for purpose, fumble for love, grapple with their future, break the rules (and a few laws) and text like mad in Nanette Burstein's documentary, 95 minutes of "real" culled from 1,200 hours of footage.
There's Colin, the Leno-jawed basketball jock whose Elvis-impersonating dad keeps pressuring him to shoot more because it's either a college scholarship "or the Army."
The wealthy and pretty Megan is the classic "mean girl." But even pretty, popular rich girls have pressures — getting into Daddy's alma mater, for instance.
Video-game loner Jake has a face that changes from shot to shot, thanks to the ravages of acne. He just wants a girlfriend.
And Hannah is the Ally Sheedy in this Breakfast Club, the rocker-free spirit: "I hate this place. I can't wait to get out of Indiana." She's the daughter of a manic depressive who seems that way herself, spiraling into depression when her boyfriend dumps her. But she wants to move to California and become a filmmaker.
(Hint to students who want the most attention when a film crew comes to your school _ tell them you want to make movies.)
There are cliches, "realities" from every high school movie of note of the past 25 years in this, from "Friday Night Lights" and "Mean Girls" to the classic, "The Breakfast Club." Burstein seems to have anchored her movie around "Breakfast's" message, "You see us as you want to see us. ... In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions." The American teens of "American Teen" are high school cliches, fantasizing themselves in video games or horror movies of their imagination.
And texting, texting, texting. One girl takes a topless cell phone photo of herself, with predictable results — Megan leads a "super-skanky" teasing campaign.
Spin the bottle, parents-out-of-town parties, the awkward school dances, prom embarrassments; we've seen it all before. And somehow, you have to wonder how the presence of the camera alters how the kids behave.
Where Burstein scores is in the detail, punching through the cliches, finding the hurt and fear, the minor (predictable) triumphs in these young lives.
And she finds the laughs, most of them ironic. The rich girl's dad is irked when she gets in trouble, not about her doing wrong, but because she got caught. Hannah's punkish band performs at school, and what song do they cover? Neil Diamond's "Cherry Baby."
"American Teen" has the ring of truth about it — far from refuting the stereotypes perpetuated in every high school film since "American Graffiti," "Teen" proves that, for the most part, they've gotten it right. High school is a great setting for melodramatics, comedy and sociological exposes.
It's all a pose, a show. And as the posters hanging over the Warsaw halls remind us, "You miss school, you miss out."
(c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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