Nanette Burstein spent an entire school year at the only high school in Warsaw, Indiana (population 12,000), where there’s no escape from the pressure cooker of adolescence or from conservative small-town conformity. Using minimal crews with minimal equipment—often just herself with a small camera—Burstein followed around five teens from across the spectrum of American youth: all-star jock Colin Clemens; band geek Jake Tusing; arty rebel Hannah Bailey; prom queen Megan Krizmanich; and heartthrob Mitch Reinholt. She claims to have become their friend, never an authority figure, and that must be true, because some of the things the kids say and do on camera are the kinds of things they’d never, ever do if they thought their parents were watching.
And that’s why adults—particularly parents—will, I suspect, get more out of American Teen than kids themselves will; it’s a peek into the horrors of adolescence that most of us have tried to forget, and shouldn’t if we’re raising kids ourselves. Some of the nonsense—the “total caste system” of school, the mean-spiritedness of some people, the peer pressure—to some degree never goes away; they are, alas, qualities inherently human, not merely inherently adolescent. Those aspects of high-school life will have many adults groaning in recognition, perhaps particularly those who work in corporate environments, which so often end up aping the structure and environment of high school.
It’s the emotionalism that, I think, many adults will have forgotten, the raging hormones that blow up absolutely every event into a tragedy—or a triumph, but more often a tragedy—of epic proportions. The wild ups and downs of adolescence really are wilder than we grown-ups remember, which Burstein captures with such desperate honesty that it’s hard to watch at moments. Every romantic breakup is a disaster (though Bailey may be suffering from a more clinical kind of depression, which makes you ache for her even more, to see how badly she is derailed by heartbreak), assuming you’re lucky enough to find romance in the first place. If you aren’t, well, that’s a whole other kind of tragedy. Entire futures appear to weigh on whether that college acceptance comes through, whether that scholarship is offered, whether parents are able to accept that carefully thought-through decision about whether life after high school should include college at all.
“My life sucks right now,” Tusing laments, trying to explain how deeply in pain he is all the time, “but what if it’s even worse after high school?” Most adults will, I suspect, already know that it all gets at least a little better, once the teen years are behind us. A reminder that we once felt the same way—and expressed it in such a way that a kid will never say directly to an adult, because it leaves you too raw and exposed—is a good thing.
Raw and exposed—that’s American Teen as a package, and it comes at you in more ways than you’d expect. Burstein uses clever and stylized animation sequences to illustrate the hopes and fears of her subjects, dreamscapes that capture the kids’ souls in a way that is breathtaking, and perhaps do more to slam us adults back into adolescence than any other facet of the film. All I know is this: Whenever I was tempted to scoff, from my 20-years-past-high-school perspective, at some of these kids as spoiled brats or clueless children, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.
Directed by Nanette Burstein, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich