AmericaÂs 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 BursteinÂs 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. ItÂs enough to leave your notes carefully tucked away, the public never the wiser and far better as a result. For amidst the clichÃ©s, 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 isnÂt 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 lifeÂs 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 weÂd 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 nationÂs 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 whyÂ they don’tÂ happen more often. As presented, Warsaw
Community High School is more stifling and regimented than North Korea.
First, there is Hannah.Â Sweet little Hannah. The poor dear doesnÂt fit in, you see, primarily because sheÂs 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. SheÂs a rebel: a wild child who notices rules only to break them, and sheÂll 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. SheÂs still zany and wacky and off-center, but sheÂs stable, which goes to prove that high school wouldnÂt 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 hasnÂt the brain matter to understand her crippling limitations. SheÂs a cute girl to be sure,Â though obviouslyÂ 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 couldnÂt 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 (sheÂs living with her grandmother) and whose lone success as a parent is to pass on the gene for limitless navel-gazing. Needless to say, HannahÂs mom is humorless, vicious, and unkind, though she helpfully reminds her daughter that sheÂs Ânot special.Â 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 worldÂs longest chin. HeÂs a pretty ugly dude, yet the film classifies him as popular for no reason exhibited on camera. ColinÂs 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 didnÂt have the discipline to save a dime, itÂs 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, heÂs forced to attend Indiana Tech, though with most of his tuition paid. ItÂs nice to see the lad accept reality at last, but thereÂs 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 heÂs so shallow he barely registers as a human being. He claims to be one funny dude, but IÂll 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 itÂs just as well that he found his station in life and seems content to ride it out without complaint.
Ah, and then thereÂs 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. SheÂs 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 ifÂ in complete command of her underlings, yet sheÂs so hateful that one wonders why a coup hadnÂt 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 isnÂt to her liking, sheÂll vandalize the house of the kid responsible. If a girl sends a picture of her bare breasts over a phone, sheÂll 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 doesnÂt control, though (gosh) wouldnÂt you know it, all of this pathological behavior is the result of a deep insecurity. CanÂt cunts be cunts anymore without all the buried hurt? While woefully unexplored, the story with Megan involves a sisterÂs suicide a short time ago, though we get so many dead ends we wonder what in the hell happened. The best I can tell, MeganÂs sister was semi-retarded and wanted to be a teacher. When that dream (rightfully) could not be fulfilled, she killed herself in the familyÂs basement. How, we donÂt 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, thereÂs 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, heÂs so goddamn boring that I canÂt 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 outsiderÂs 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 doesnÂt appear suicidal, but I gather heÂs too narcissistic for such an act, and heÂd 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 JakeÂs world, and IÂll repeat: half the time we see him, heÂs 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 allegedÂ self-loathing is an act cooked up by the director to help fill out the cast. He might claim that heÂs unloved, but the fucker is always busy, and his weekends are as full as any cheerleaderÂs. 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 wouldÂ both have the perfect audience.
Still, despite these lackluster boys and girls, the main problem remains the air of scripted drama. JakeÂs 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 filmmakerÂs self-regard. I contrast the ÂdocumentaryÂ with Frederick WisemanÂs 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 doesnÂt trust us to come to the correct conclusions, so she shapes the ends to fit preconceived notions. We couldnÂt possibly disagree, because we only see what she wants us to see. Though I doubt it, there may be nuance to these teenagers, only weÂre 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? LetÂs 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 toÂ 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 weÂd rather have, as it comforts, soothes, and sends us to bed with the world in order; all in its proper place.