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American Teen An Involving Look At High School Life

American Teen
Written and directed by Nanette Burstein
Paramount Vantage, 2008

American Teen got a lot of its marketing mileage out of being the documentary version of The Breakfast Club, picking out its “characters” much like John Hughes’ 1985 classic.  The comparison is somewhat valid but forced.  While the people in American Teen have some similarities, they are mostly different shades away from their Breakfast Club counterparts, and there isn’t really anyone like Judd Nelson in here.

We follow, in this small town of Warsaw, Indiana: Hannah Bailey, the unpopular rebellious chick who reminds me a ton of Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You in appearance and demeanor; Colin Clemens, the basketball player who needs a scholarship to ever see college, else it’s the army; Megan Krizmanich, the “princess” and resident Mean Girl who takes part in every activity possible; Jake Tusing, the band nerd who has a hard time with any social situation and has a hard time keeping the girls he actually finds to go out with him; and finally Mitch Reinholt, the basketball player and resident heartthrob, probably the film’s one big flaw because we never see him, his hopes or dreams, and only as the guy who “finds” Hannah Bailey as a love interest.

Hannah’s big problem is guys.  Early on, she tells of how she can never see herself living without her current boyfriend, only to see that boyfriend break up with her pretty quickly into the movie.  It causes a depression that keeps her from going to school, and she just wants to get the heck out of Warsaw.  Then, later, hope: the super popular Mitch fancies her and they start going out.

Colin is highly popular and a star basketball player.  He won’t be able to get into college by having his parents pay his way, so he has to get the scholarship.  This causes him to be a bit of a ball hog and detrimental to the team.  He has to learn how to trust his teammates and stop trying to look like Michael Jordan on every play.

Megan is the pretty girl with a scarring event happening two years earlier, and she gets involved with tons of activities, including student council.  But when things don’t go exactly her way, she gets a bit destructive to those around her and to herself.  Her big hope is to get into Notre Dame since her dad and siblings all went there.

Jake is perhaps the most interesting character study.  He’s the acne-marked, video game-playing, band nerd whose main quest seems to be finding a girlfriend.  Early on, he lands the cute new girl who hasn’t made any friends yet, which is part of the problem.  She goes out with him early, but other boys are discovering her, and Jake is one of those guys who always says the wrong thing and is never quite sure how to keep a girl’s interest.  It’s amusing and heartbreaking all at once to see him in action.  You root for him to just learn a little bit of social skill.

Finally, there’s Mitch, introduced as Colin’s friend who tells us that Colin is hurting the team.  But his main function in this documentary is making up an oddball pair between he and Hannah: the popular mixed with unpopular.  This relationship has an unexpected twist…unexpected that is, if you can’t see the telltale body language.  The execution of this twist, however, is very surprising.

This movie is very good at getting you to root for its characters.  It does take some liberties: cartoon fantasy sequences occur when some of these people tell us their dreams.  But it’s a lot more frank than I was expecting, even in this day and age where reality television has a bunch of people seeking notoriety.  The situation is a bit different; it’s not a game show or a Real World-type of narrative where a bunch of strangers get thrown in a house, so it’s still fresh that we get to peer into this world of high school: teens admitting their sexual experiences, drinking alcohol, cheating on their significant others, all of these things knowing full well that one day it will be shown to thousands, maybe millions, of people, including the ones that they hurt.

You’ll see some very modern-day things here you would never have seen in Breakfast Club: A girl takes a picture of herself topless, naively believing that the person she sends it to won’t send it to others, a breakup via text message…in fact a lot of very personal, damaging things occur with cell phones in this movie.  It’s an honest trip that will have you rooting for all of the subjects, and feeling that sense of dread when you know something bad is going to happen.

So it’s an entertaining doc, even though it has some rough edges.

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