Cinema | Kids These Days: American Teen reminds us how little the agony of adolescence has changed | Film Reviews | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Cinema | Kids These Days: American Teen reminds us how little the agony of adolescence has changed 

Pin It
click to enlarge art6377widea.jpg
Does life change after high school, or is it just more of the same-old same-old? Seems to me it must be a little bit of both, because as I sat in the dark watching American Teen, the intimate and incisive new documentary about senior year for five high-schoolers, I simultaneously thought, “Thank God I’m not a teenager anymore,” and “Wow, we never really grow up, do we?”

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.


click to enlarge 3-5_stars.gif

Directed by Nanette Burstein, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich
Rated PG-13

Pin It


More by MaryAnn Johanson

  • Brexit-stential Blues

    T2 revisits Trainspotting 20 years later, in a more complicated world.
    • Mar 29, 2017
  • Ape-ocalypse Now

    Kong: Skull Island brings Vietnam to a war against monsters.
    • Mar 8, 2017
  • Minor Miner

    Gold never shakes free from its too-familiar story idea.
    • Jan 25, 2017
  • More »

Latest in Film Reviews

  • Gray Area

    A great filmmaker shows off his non-showy stuff in The Lost City of Z.
    • Apr 19, 2017
  • Kid Stuff

    A lovely child performance anchors the satisfying family drama of Gifted.
    • Apr 12, 2017
  • Defusing Tension

    Every explosion is predictable in the post-WWII Danish drama Land of Mine.
    • Apr 5, 2017
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


Readers also liked…

  • Where Are the Women?

    A critic's year-long deep-dive into the way movies portray one half of humanity.
    • May 11, 2016
  • Beasts of One Notion

    Zootopia depends entirely on its well-intentioned allegory about prejudice.
    • Mar 2, 2016

© 2017 Salt Lake City Weekly

Website powered by Foundation