American Teen (Paramount Vantage, PG-13)

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I’m fine with that. I like success stories of little documentaries like this one, and I love a good high school-set movie as much as anyone else (if not more). But I have some major problems with American Teen. The first one is that it isn’t good. Second, it’s exploitative. Third, it’s embarrassing. Fourth, it’s intrusive. Fifth, it’s not going to go away.

 

One of Hollywood’s favorite topics to cover in comedies is coming of age in high school (The Breakfast Club? American Pie? the list goes on), but there haven’t really been much in the way of documentaries on this fruitful topic in the past. But now, after a very successful premiere at Sundance and a ton of promotional screenings in pretty much every major city in the United States, Nanette Burstein’s (director of the very overrated doc The Kid Stays in the Picture) American Teen is ready to rectify that, and hopefully make ton of money in the process.

I’m fine with that. I like success stories of little documentaries like this one, and I love a good high school-set movie as much as anyone else (if not more). But I have some major problems with American Teen. The first one is that it isn’t good. Second, it’s exploitative. Third, it’s embarrassing. Fourth, it’s intrusive. Fifth, it’s not going to go away.

American Teen is set in Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Ind., which is a small, conservative neighborhood. The teens it focuses on are popular girl Megan, jock Colin, rebel Hannah, and Jake the geek. The posters and trailers have also touted Mitch, the golden boy, but in reality he isn’t in it that much, and my suspicion is that Paramount Vantage’s marketing team decided they needed someone more attractive (which Mitch definitely is) than the four mentioned above (who all look like regular high school kids) to sell the movie.

Nothing really remarkable happens in American Teen, or that is to say, everything remarkable happens in it, but nothing that everyone hasn’t lived through. There’s no big catastrophe or covered-up secret or newsworthy event here; it’s just a handful of regular kids growing up in the regular way. Not that this in and of itself is bad, as I like the basic human truths that come along with it, but what I worry about is the effect it has had/will have on its subjects’ lives. Everybody makes dumb mistakes and acts like an asshole (or gets crapped on by the assholes, as the case may be) in high school, but pretty much no one has to share their petty mistakes and embarrassments for the world to scrutinize.

Take Megan, for example. Admittedly, she does some awful things in the course of the movie, but she is very distinctly demonized by Burstein, and you come out of the movie more or less hating Megan. But why? Sure, Megan’s behavior borders on evil, but the same goes for the behavior of pretty much everyone else who is high-school aged, with the only difference being that people will always remember what Megan did, while everyone will forget all of the dumb stuff that the rest of us did. Why did Burstein decide to single her out as the bad guy? Even more mind-boggling is the fact that the core group of teens in American Teen has been touring the country making appearances with the film, Megan among them. I can’t imagine she likes the way she is portrayed in this movie. Comparatively, Megan gets off easy; Jake’s romantic follies will really haunt him when in a few years his acne clears up and he’s gains some social graces (which I have no doubt will eventually happen).

Even secondary characters are splashed across the screen to be mocked and judged for their actions for the rest of their lives — there’s a short sequence involving one of Megan’s friends named Erica which seems to have been included only to give her a complex about it for the rest of her life, as she isn’t in the movie at all except for one scene that serves to both a) mortify her, and b) make Megan look like a bitch from hell.

There’s a point where Hannah is seriously depressed, so much so that she misses weeks of school. And yet Burstein has access to all of her crying and hiding from the world. How did she get this kind of access?

I think that there is a certain type of person who will be greatly affected by this movie for the better, and that makes it all something close to worthwhile. Some people, my guess those having a hard time in high school now (drama geeks, maybe?), will really latch onto this movie, and it will make them feel less alone. I just wish that the students depicted in the film didn’t have to martyr their lives for this effect to take place.| Pete Timmermann

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