The new documentary American Teen is more of a marketing sensation than a cinematic one. After successfully stirring up some buzz at Sundance, Paramount Vantage released a poster that posed the documentary's "characters" to mimic the poster for The Breakfast Club. And indeed, that's the story director Nanette Burstein seems to have "found" and constructed from her footage: pigeonholed teens discovering that they're more than their stereotypes and trying to make the world see their true selves. But a documentary shouldn't feel this packaged; rather, it should create an illusion of reality much more convincing than a fiction film can provide.
American Teen selects as its leading characters a purported cross-section of Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana: "the jock" (Colin Clemens), "the princess" (Megan Krizmanich), "the rebel" (Hannah Bailey), "the geek" (Jake Tusing), and "the heartthrob" (Mitch Reinholt). It's a white-bread bunch, and their issues are familiar. The jock has to impress college recruiters to score a much-needed scholarship ("Twelve rebounds," his dad tells him. "Otherwise it's the army"). The princess is the campus bitch, popular and feared, but scared she won't fulfill her family legacy to attend Notre Dame. The rebel has a negative self-image and relationship drama. The geek is nervously on the prowl for girls. And the heartthrob has to reconsider his cool self-image when he discovers he may be more interested in artsy Hannah than the unspoken rule not to cross cliques.
The film begins on the first day of senior year and ends at graduation time, but with only 100 minutes to make us see the characters as more than their first impressions, American Teen winds up playing like the highlight reel of a season-long reality show. For narrative purposes, Colin's basketball season is artificially stretched across the whole school year, an unforgiveable distortion of the film's chronological perspective. Worsening the superficial impression are the heavy-handed pop-rock soundtrack (including cuts like "Trouble" and "Love is in the Air" for nostalgia seekers in the crowd) and "hip" animated sequences to visualize the character's dreams and neuroses. The narration by Hannah feels particularly scripted and questionably indicative of what we're supposed to think ("Warsaw is your typical midwestern town").
The teens are given to exaggeration in their comments, which is not unusual, but those comments also seem suspiciously perfect (perhaps prompted?) to serve the filmmakers' clean narrative lines. We see self-described "band geek" Jake playing sword-and-sorcery video games, and hear him on the soundtrack telling us, "I wish my life were more like video games, 'cause then I'd always get the girl." Burstein shows us many instances of Megan acting bitchy, then springs the secret trigger to her rage (a family tragedy two years earlier), but with so little screen time to deepen the portrait, the explanation comes off as just as reductive as the stereotype with which she's branded. Conflations and conspicuously selective editing (interviewing a character when he likes a girl but not after he breaks up with her) severely limit our perspective on the characters.
These problems are part and parcel of the choice to make a 100-minute film purporting to tell us the truth about five teens (or even four, if you count Mitch as a supporting player). But on a superficial level, the film is entertaining in an "OMG," "LOL" sort of way. The universal social themes are comfortingly recognizable, from Jake's clueless attempts to join the dating ranks (his idea of a pick-up line: "We both suck at life") to Hannah's heartbreaking anxiety attacks that keep her out of school for seventeen days following an embarrassing break-up. Then there's the looming generation gap, with Hannah rejecting her parents' advice because, as she tells them to their faces, she doesn't want their lives.
The film also sparks to life when Burstein hones in on an idiosyncratic detail or episode. Colin's dad, amazingly, is an Elvis impersonator (LOL!) and one segment of the film deals with a telling case of modern high-school drama, compounded by cell phones and internet: a meant-to-be-private topless pic (OMG!) cruelly forwarded around the whole school. American Teen is perfectly watchable, but in the age of reality TV, it doesn't provide a compelling enough reason to leave the house. Given the film’s brevity, in some ways the more you watch it, the less you'll feel you know about these fickle high-schoolers, who by the end are poised for another round of major life changes.