Paramount Home Entertainment
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Director Nanette Burstein [The Kid Stays in the Picture] decided to bring her camera to middle-American, the “real America” [as we so often were reminded during this past election] to spend ten months in the lives of five seniors in a small town Indiana high school. American Teen allows us to observe the jock, geek, prom queen, rebel, and heartthrob navigate the halls of Warsaw High School during the all-important senior year– a year for change, introspection, and decision making.
High school is a difficult time, made only more complicated by technology [as evidenced in American Teen by an unfortunate incident involving a picture texted from a girl to a boy and subsequently emailed throughout the school]. Sure, I found American Teen rather absorbing but it did not move me as much as other documentaries involving high-schoolers such as Hoop Dreams, Country Boys or Devil’s Playground. If you are under 21 and watch this film, it might seem stressful and daunting. If you are over 30, you will reminisce about some of the ridiculous worries, stresses and griefs high school caused.
While Warsaw is painted as a small town there are a plethora of school activities of which many inner-city school would be envious. Warsaw does not seem to lack in school activities: prom, yearbook, a radio and television station, school paper, sports teams, band, cheerleading, and many other after-school activities. Many schools have had athletic and other extra-curricular activities (and music and art) cut from their curriculums. I don’t think the high school experience here is all that different than that of many suburban high schools. They are driving distance to Chicago, at least.
Colin, the awkward, pimple-faced, goofy jock with middling grades possesses just okay hoop skills. His only hope for college seems to be a basketball scholarship and this season has not been his best. Before a game, his father tells him he “better get those rebounds otherwise it’s the army.” You can see the pressure in his face after every game as he does worse and worse. It’s pretty sad to see this guy hunched on the bench in the locker room after another lousy game.
Band geek Jacob has terrible acne and is extremely shy and obsessed with having a girlfriend. He spends hours playing video games especially one where he creates fantasies where he runs off with the girl in the end. He dates more than I did in high school. He goes after the new freshman in town. She is also in the band. But soon another guy in the band is making moves on her and she needs to “meet new people and enjoy high school.” He seems to find a connection with a girl he met in Chicago at a wedding. Why all the stress though kid?
A straight-haired blonde, with J. Crew wardrobe, is the popular Megan. She lists about a dozen activities in which she is involved including yearbook, cheerleading, the activities planning committee, and swim team. She plans to go to Notre Dame like her father and most of her siblings and to major in pre-med. Megan seems like the perfect student/all-around girl but she is the ringleader to the most cruel and childish activities of the entire film from crank phone calls to toilet-papering houses to spray painting “fag” on a fellow student council member’s door.
The self-proclaimed “liberal in a conservative town”, Hannah, the vintage-clad “rebel” alternative chick, loves music, art, film and photography, and wants to move to California to study film. Hannah is the most likeable girl in the film and the one most likely to succeed. You want her to get out of town and make something of herself. She paints and rocks out to cool music and hangs out with her buddy and doesn’t seem to care that much about what others think until she goes home and breaks down or doesn’t show up at school for weeks. You want to shake her and tell her it is not her, it is just high school and once she gets out of her 20s she will understand. This is an awkward phase that everyone must go through and learn from. Her mom is bipolar and Hannah is a bit depressed as well.
Then there’s the heartthrob Mitch, a cute blonde basketball player with a guilty smile. He has it pretty easy because everyone finds him so attractive. We discover he’s had a crush on someone outside his circle for years: the class “rebel”: Hannah They date and for the short time they do, it’s sweet and in each other, I think they find out a bit about themselves until he brings her to a party with his insecure friends and then breaks up with her via a text message the next day. Weak. Shallow.
Though Burstein does her best to find a jock, a geek, a prom queen, rebel, and heartthrob, this is not the real life version of The Breakfast Club. These kids never attempt to find any common ground, never want to know each other, can’t get away from each other fast enough and never can see the world from each other’s perspectives even for five minutes. This might happen at their five- or ten- or twenty-year high school reunions, but kids in high school are too insecure and too self-absorbed, no matter how popular or how cool they may seem to anyone.
Anyone who makes it out of high school knows what happens after high school. Things might get worse and better and worse again but it is never as bad as high school. Why? People learn. People grow. People move on. We hope. Those that stagnate and hold on to the glory days of high school never succeed.