A Year with American Teens

5 minute read
Richard Corliss

In his afterword to Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov astutely observed that “reality” is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes.” He was arguing that any event is channeled, distorted, enriched by our perspective–that there’s no objective reality, really. Nabokov was writing in 1956, just before the film form called cinema verité proved that even truth-seeking documentaries could have a social agenda and decades before shows like The Real World, Survivor and Big Brother made “reality TV” a phrase that is meaningless without sarcasm. Today, with reality programs using scriptwriters and dramas going for that realistic shaky-cam vibe, the whole medium seems to be seeking a plausible fictional reality. Call it faux verité.

Documentary films are mediated too, by the filmmaker’s natural desire to find a coherent narrative, to lure you into the stories of the people onscreen–to (it’s not a bad word) entertain. Nowhere is this itch to Hollywoodize reality clearer than in American Teen, director Nanette Burstein’s account of one year, 2005–06, in the lives of four high school seniors in Warsaw, Ind. It’s the rare documentary that could score at the box office, and not just because Paramount Vantage, its distributor, is pushing it hard. You’re likely to have an absorbing, unsettling time at American Teen, for it seduces even as it sparks suspicions about the motives of Burstein and her young stars.

Stars is the word, though the leads are actual kids, whom Burstein chose in a sifting process in which she contacted hundreds of Midwestern schools and then 10 possible subjects at Warsaw before she settled on her final four. They get the full treatment, with animated vignettes laying out the dreams of each of the quartet and underscored songs cuing the audience’s emotions.

Not that viewers should have trouble pegging the characters. There’s Megan, the prom queen, top scholar, clique leader and occasional megabitch–a real Heather from Heathers–but with a family tragedy the movie reveals only near the end. Colin is the basketball star, who’s under pressure from his dad, an Elvis impersonator (could you make this stuff up?), to win a college scholarship. “Otherwise,” Dad warns, “it’s the Army.” Jake is the loner. He’ll be handsome once he grows out of his braces and that awful acne, but for now he’s content to muse on his misfit fate. Hannah, whose artistic impulses alienate her from her classmates, has dreams of moving to San Francisco to study film. But even more, she just wants to get the freak out of town.

For each teen, Burstein has located a dramatic arc, twist and payoff. Colin needs to rack up points to impress the scouts, so he becomes a selfish player, taking all the shots and not passing off. Will he learn the value of teamwork before the big game? Megan is desperate to get into Notre Dame, where her father and siblings have gone, but she courts suspension with nasty pranks: promiscuously e-mailing a topless photo of another girl and making catty calls to her; wreathing a rival’s car in toilet paper, then spray-painting a penis and the word fag on his window. She’s quite the cutup.

Yet when Megan was committing these minor atrocities, she didn’t mind the director tagging along. (Hey, Nanette! I’m gonna T.P. some dork’s house. Bring your camera and mike!) We may amend Warhol’s law to say that everyone will be notorious for 15 minutes and that no one will mind a bit. As ordinary folks spill their guts on Maury and the reality shows, as young stars go picturesquely bonkers for the paparazzi, people may no longer feel embarrassed about anything. It’s not indiscretion, it’s publicity. The Warsaw kids aren’t upset at how they look in the movie; they’re out promoting it (and themselves) this summer, which beats working at Arby’s. The film also has a page on Facebook. No topless photos, please.

O.K., it’s hard not to root for these teens, even Megan, the somehow-poor little rich girl. But it’s also tough to ignore their similarities to countless characters in teen dramas and comedies. John Hughes sculpted a career writing about kids like these in The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink; Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks mined the same vein. Burstein’s film is way more earnest, but she’s learned a lot, maybe too much, from the movies’ take on teendom. Rather than offer a gritty view, upending the familiar vision of high school angst, she has fashioned a work so smooth and assured, it seems like a re-enactment of real events–the Hollywood remake of itself.

Which is exactly what could make American Teen a hit. Fulfilling our Hollywood-bred notion about what kids are like, giving us tears and taunts and a little sex: Is that reality? No, that’s reali-tainment.

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