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American Teen

Candid, intimate, and often heart-wrenching, Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen captures the confusion and agony of living through high school.


Filmed over the course of the 2005-06 school year at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana, American Teen documents the many trials and triumphs of a group of seniors: endearing, eccentric Hannah Bailey; earnest basketball star Colin Clemens; queen of the popular crowd Megan Krizmanich; awkward loner Jake Tusing; and charming Mitch Reinholdt. The camera follows them as they cope with everything from painful breakups and new love to championship games and college applications, capturing the stress, joy, agony, and confusion of being a teenager. There's not much here that many other teen movies—particularly those in the John Hughes canon—haven't dealt with before, but because it's all new to these kids, it feels fresh and compelling. Not to mention heartwrenching; if you've already left high school behind you, don't be surprised to find yourself thanking your lucky stars.


Although American Teen is a documentary, the realities of being a teenager mean that its subjects end up acting every day. Hannah puts on a tough face when she returns to school after a long absence due to a bout of depression. Megan acts like she'll be OK if she doesn't get into Notre Dame (a long-standing family tradition). Mitch tries to pretend that he doesn't care that his friends don't understand why he'd want to date an ''outsider'' like Hannah. Because viewers get to see the truths behind these pretenses, they're all the more affecting; Hannah, in particular, will win you over with her big dreams and fierce determination. But while there's no shortage of raw, honest moments, it's impossible not to feel like the kids are putting on at least a bit of a show for the cameras; raised in the era of reality TV, you can tell that they know what interpersonal drama is ''supposed'' to look like.


No stranger to gripping documentaries, Nanette Burstein—who also directed On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture—is clearly aware of how closely her film and its subjects mirror their fictional counterparts in Hughes' classics like The Breakfast Club. But it's precisely this awareness that makes the film's point so clear: Stereotypes and clichés rule high school just as thoroughly in the real world as they do in fiction. And teens have to negotiate the pressures and boundaries imposed by those labels every day. The fact that Burstein really helps her audience get to know the kids she spent a year with makes what they go through both personal and moving. It's not the most original documentary you'll see, but it certainly taps into emotions that we can all identify with.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 stars.