America’s teenagers are moody, grouchy, and melodramatic. They are cruel, self-involved, obnoxious, and, if the mood strikes, far more authoritarian than any of the adults they claim to loathe with such white-hot intensity. If you need a documentary to reveal these earth-shattering truths about our young people, by all means check out Nanette Burstein’s American Teen, the inexplicable hit at Sundance that proves yet again that the compulsion to make a movie need not translate into a finished product. It’s enough to leave your notes carefully tucked away, the public never the wiser and far better as a result. For amidst the clichés, meandering nothingness, and vanity pieces passing for wisdom, there is a film of the most disturbing manipulation; a sad post-production orgy of selective editing, unconscionable reenactments, and, though unproven, an off-camera coach feeding lines to her young charges. As such, there isn’t an ounce of American Teen that strikes a chord of authenticity, and at best, we follow a handful of drippy, irritating high school seniors through their extended auditions for bigger and better reality programming. These may in fact be the kids swarming and shucking around the cities and towns of our depressing landscape, but if true, it means that we are set to release into the world an entire generation of smarmy brats ill-equipped to face life’s woes without resorting to the hipster retorts of their bumbling class.
Burstein has set her sights on Warsaw, Indiana, a conservative community of white, largely affluent Christians, which begs the question of what could possibly be learned from such homogeneity. If the director were armed with acid-soaked queries about race, class, and religion in the heartland, we might be left with a predictable rant, but at least we’d be entertained. Nothing soothes the blackest of hearts better than watching the pious feel the flames of their own hypocrisy. Instead, Burstein lacks a point of view altogether, except of course to lionize her little ones as simultaneously aggrieved and misunderstood. To explore these lives, she has gone no further than The Breakfast Club, presenting The Jock, The Nerd, The Princess, and the Artsy Outsider, as if she has pioneered an unorthodox way of looking at our nation’s youth. Again, kids may work very hard to uphold the stereotypes that long pre-date their birth, but to ask us to sit through it all once again is an arrogance Burstein should save for a truly worthwhile project. And as we check off the expected traits of our four heroes, we half hope gunfire interrupts the proceedings, lest the narrative get too stale. All at once, it hits you: if this is what has become of our high schools, the only question is not why Harris and Klebold, et al, planned their righteous attacks, but rather why they don’t happen more often. As presented, Warsaw
Community High School is more stifling and regimented than North Korea.
First, there is Hannah. Sweet little Hannah. The poor dear doesn’t fit in, you see, primarily because she’s the sort of gal who misses three weeks of school due to a break-up, or sees fit to dance uncontrollably for no apparent reason. She’s a rebel: a wild child who notices rules only to break them, and she’ll be damned if she conforms to what others think. Curious, then, when she attracts the eyes of a popular jock (not the jock, but some other guy who appears to have had his jawline carved from granite), that she becomes everything she hates. She’s still zany and wacky and off-center, but she’s stable, which goes to prove that high school wouldn’t have a peep of discontent if everyone got to stare longingly into the eyes of a crush now and again. With love or without, Hannah is a maniacal creep; a delusional nitwit who fancies herself a painter and a filmmaker and a writer and a journalist and any number of, like, creative things, yet hasn’t the brain matter to understand her crippling limitations. She’s a cute girl to be sure, though obviously a performance artist in waiting; a young woman who believes that art is best when it looks inward, erects a permanent edifice, and hunkers down for a self-righteous war against all comers. As such, the little puke couldn’t craft a single sentence not soaked in the bitter juices of autobiography. We are even more certain after meeting her mother, a mentally ill woman who can no longer care for Hannah (she’s living with her grandmother) and whose lone success as a parent is to pass on the gene for limitless navel-gazing. Needless to say, Hannah’s mom is humorless, vicious, and unkind, though she helpfully reminds her daughter that she’s “not special.” True, mommie dearest, but let that label be based on a lack of accomplishment, not your jealousy of her budding youth.
Next we have Colin, a basketball stud in possession of an extreme self-satisfaction, as well as the world’s longest chin. He’s a pretty ugly dude, yet the film classifies him as popular for no reason exhibited on camera. Colin’s the stock character who has the skills yet lacks the cash, and throughout the movie, he desperately seeks a scholarship to pay for his schooling. Dad is a classic jerk (and Elvis impersonator), telling the boy that because he didn’t have the discipline to save a dime, it’s either unemployment or the military. Colin wants neither, and adjusts his game to be even more selfish so that recruiters will notice him. Nobody ever really does, and by the end, he’s forced to attend Indiana Tech, though with most of his tuition paid. It’s nice to see the lad accept reality at last, but there’s little doubt that he sees himself as screwed, even though his talent on the court appears indistinguishable from thousands of other corn-fed Hoosier boys. At the very least, Colin is not a prick, though he’s so shallow he barely registers as a human being. He claims to be one funny dude, but I’ll be damned if I saw anything that even approached a mild joke. If the director simply had to have an athlete aboard, surely she could have found someone with a pulse. I hated Colin, but it’s just as well that he found his station in life and seems content to ride it out without complaint.
Ah, and then there’s Megan. Every high school has its Super Bitch, and she fits the bill nicely, effortlessly putting down everyone not up to her standards, which are still a mystery once the film comes to an end. She’s not really that attractive, yet she has the self-confidence of someone who is, which might be all one ever really needs. She struts around as if in complete command of her underlings, yet she’s so hateful that one wonders why a coup hadn’t been attempted during her four years on top. As expected, she manipulates everyone in her vicinity, dictating who may date, kiss, or even speak. If the prom theme isn’t to her liking, she’ll vandalize the house of the kid responsible. If a girl sends a picture of her bare breasts over a phone, she’ll make damn sure the girl is not only humiliated, but pushed to the brink of suicide. Typical of her class, she hates anything and everything she doesn’t control, though (gosh) wouldn’t you know it, all of this pathological behavior is the result of a deep insecurity. Can’t cunts be cunts anymore without all the buried hurt? While woefully unexplored, the story with Megan involves a sister’s suicide a short time ago, though we get so many dead ends we wonder what in the hell happened. The best I can tell, Megan’s sister was semi-retarded and wanted to be a teacher. When that dream (rightfully) could not be fulfilled, she killed herself in the family’s basement. How, we don’t know, but there it is. Megan may have been intolerable before the so-called tragedy, but we are left to assume that she was an angel until the death sparked an unquenchable rage. And Hitler received a spanking too many, apparently.
At last, there’s Jake, the standard geek of the bunch, though he manages to get at least two girlfriends during the film, which seems a bit at odds with his loser status. As with Hannah, we are meant to sympathize with Jake, but once again, he’s so goddamn boring that I can’t say I cared whether or not people talked to him. His unsightly acne, monotone, and deplorable haircut pretty much guaranteed him a spot on the outsider’s bench, and nothing he does while on camera leads one to believe it should be any different. Naturally, he is obsessed with video games and fantasy, and due to a well-placed picture of Kurt Cobain, he also fancies himself a martyr. He doesn’t appear suicidal, but I gather he’s too narcissistic for such an act, and he’d rather stick around to see what people are saying about him. I might be in his corner if I saw a trace of injustice in his life, but everything seems in order in Jake’s world, and I’ll repeat: half the time we see him, he’s got his paws all over some chick. Hell, he even goes to prom! In the end, Jake is a nerd by choice, not circumstance, and his alleged self-loathing is an act cooked up by the director to help fill out the cast. He might claim that he’s unloved, but the fucker is always busy, and his weekends are as full as any cheerleader’s. Had the director an ounce of real insight, she might have encouraged Jake to pursue Hannah in matters of love. Each loves a pity party, and this way, they would both have the perfect audience.
Still, despite these lackluster boys and girls, the main problem remains the air of scripted drama. Jake’s acne changes day to day, which to me signified an editing process that tried to maximize a better story line. Odd animated sequences also intrude on occasion, making the film less a study of youth than a stylized celebration of a filmmaker’s self-regard. I contrast the “documentary” with Frederick Wiseman’s landmark High School, a fly on the wall investigation that simply lets the camera roll without commentary. There are no stars and, since the film pre-dates the internet and full celebrity explosion, no irritating moments of artificiality. We imposed our own judgments on the people involved and their actions, instead of having the heroes and villains simply provided on a platter. Burstein doesn’t trust us to come to the correct conclusions, so she shapes the ends to fit preconceived notions. We couldn’t possibly disagree, because we only see what she wants us to see. Though I doubt it, there may be nuance to these teenagers, only we’re not allowed to consider it. I believe with all of my being that the average high school senior is a vapid buffoon with sex and alcohol on the brain, but with something so obvious, why make a film about it? Let’s tackle the proverbial nerd who is a raging bastard, or the jock who reads to sick children, or the cheerleader who passes on a night of spreading her chafed thighs to crack a novel, even if you have to make them up out of whole cloth. Burstein proved that reality is what you make of it, so why not cook up a little unpredictability? Or is the stereotype what we’d rather have, as it comforts, soothes, and sends us to bed with the world in order; all in its proper place.