Thursday, August 14, 2008

Teenage Wasteland

The characters in American Teen seem like stock figures from a high school comedy: the stuck-up prom queen, the ambitious jock, the pimply nerd, the misunderstood artist. It’s Mean Girls, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Revenge of the Nerds. But American Teen is a documentary, and the kids are real. That their stories conform to the tropes of teen movies demonstrates that these narratives are universal, rolling around somewhere in our collective unconscious.

Nanette Burstein, who co-directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, a biography of movie producer Robert Evans, made American Teen by living for ten months among a group of high-school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana. She filmed the kids constantly, capturing their dreams, struggles, misdeeds and occasional triumphs. The result was a staggering 1,000 hours of footage, which over a year she pared down to 95 minutes. The result is a superbly made, absorbing look at modern middle-American youth.

Burstein was influenced by Seventeen, an edgy PBS documentary centering on Indiana high school students. That film focused on issues like interracial dating, while American Teen is more concerned with social dynamics and the pressures placed on teenagers by their anxious parents.

Burstein selected a high school in Warsaw, a small northern Indiana town described by one student as “your typical Midwestern town, white, Christian, red state, middle-class all the way.” The town has only one high school, which means that Mercedes-driving students attend alongside students of more modest means. The social order, says one girl, is “a total caste system.”

The top caste is represented by Megan, homecoming queen and student council climber whose personality appears to be modeled on Tracy Flick from Election: ruthless, arrogant, “a total bitch.” And, of course, very popular among her posse of friends.

ehind Megan’s imperious façade lurks an insecure girl whose parents expect her to be accepted by the competitive University of Notre Dame, Dad’s alma mater. The film hints at darker family dynamics. Megan weeps while recalling the suicide of her learning-disabled sister, who struggled to live up to her parents’ demands.

Colin, an easygoing athlete, is also under duress from his dad, who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator. Basketball is a religion in the Hoosier state, and Colin was conditioned since toddlerhood to be a hoops star. Dad, counting on a basketball scholarship to pay for college, urges Colin to score big at games to impress college recruiters. Colin hogs the ball, and the team loses until he learns to be a team player. The film reminds us that college has become unaffordable for many families; Colin’s dad suggests that if he doesn’t get the scholarship, he can always join the military.

At the other end of the social spectrum is Jake, a classic geek with a bad complexion. He has two obsessions: video games and girls: “If I have a girl, I don’t feel like such a nobody.” During the film he goes through several relationships, proving that looks don’t matter, it’s persistence that pays off.

The most affecting story belongs to free-spirited Hannah, a bundle of creative energy who paints, photographs, plays guitar and dreams of becoming a film director. Painfully out of place in rural Indiana, Hannah is, like many inmates of landlocked Corn Belt states, desperate to leave for the coast, any coast. When a boyfriend breaks up with her, she plunges into a depression that leaves her terrified of going to school. In one of several animated sequences, the film explores Hannah’s haunting fear that she is becoming mentally ill like her mom, who is bipolar.

Hannah’s life takes a surprising turn when Geoff, a popular athlete, takes an interest in her. He waxes enthusiastic about how “different” she is, but his ardor soon caves under the pressure of the social hierarchy, which cannot be defied. He breaks up with her via text message.

Viral technology, in fact, is one thing that distinguishes this generation from its predecessors. In a moment of youthful exuberance, a girl sends a topless picture of herself to a boy. Within minutes, the photo has reached every computer and cell phone in the student body. The girl is cruelly harassed (“superskanky,” “pepperoni nipples”) and driven to tears. It’s Lord of the Flies, aided and abetted by the Internet.

The stories are dramatic, which makes you wonder if Burstein was merely lucky to find students whose lives were so interesting, or whether, à la Heisenberg, her presence somehow made their lives more poetic. Either way, American Teen is a first-rate documentary.

This originally appeared in Cleveland Scene.

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