Caught by the camera
Po-mo teens, too self-aware
Not enough “Heartthrob”
American Teen charts the senior year of five (sort of) high schoolers in Warsaw, Indiana. There’s Colin, the jock; Megan, the bitch princess; Jake, the geek; Mitch, the heartthrob; and Hannah… oh, Hannah… the rebel. Director Nanette Burstein captures all their major milestones: basketball championships, college letters, dances and breakups. The range of events caught on camera both big and small is impressive. She’s done such a thorough job hitting all the right notes, though, that the finished product rings a little hollow and unsurprising. It’s almost impossible to dislike this movie – which is exactly what Burstein wants – but you’ll wonder in the end what exactly you gained from the experience.
The poster on the right should give you a pretty clear idea of what the documentary aims to achieve. Like a non-fiction Breakfast Club, Teen asks us to question our perceptions about people; to look beyond the superficial and discover those things that bind us together. A noble goal, but Burstein never quite hits that wellspring of real human emotion. The problem is two-fold. First, you can blame MTV. Weaned on Real World marathons and a general glut of reality programming, my generation is hyper-aware of its surroundings. Mugging for the camera is ingrained in us whether the camera is there or not. What Teen‘s teens do and say feels real, but only by fictitious standards – like play acting. Image control, whether intentional or not, makes it difficult to access those deeper parts of the characters. Maybe it’s actually impossible in today’s world?
The second problem rests with Burstein’s controlling attitude toward the material. From ridiculously composed shots to “moments” made in the editing room, her hand is too much a presence in the film. It’s slick, yeah, but almost to the point of being synthetic. The best scenes in Teen are those where the camera just observes (shouldn’t it be doing that, like, all the time?) its subjects. Colin crying in the locker room. Mitch awkwardly ditching Hannah at a party. These carry the film, not the stylized interludes. Don’t get me started on the animated “dream” sequences…
While a gifted documentarian can make even the most boring things (peat moss, soccer) come alive, most of the time a project lives or dies by the energy of its subject. By this standard, Teen succeeds. It’s like an episode of The O.C. (more on this underrated gem later) or One Tree Hill – you know it’s phony and you know you’re not supposed to like it but DAMMIT IF IT DOESN’T GET YOU EVERY TIME. While not altogether fascinating, these characters are still endlessly fun to watch. And each of them gets to do something different. Jake, in his Legend of Zelda t-shirts, spouts some of the most endearingly sad/funny lines I’ve ever heard. Colin navigates his obligatory (but always great) basketball hero arc. Mitch stands there and looks good. Really good. Then there’s Hannah.
Hannah Bailey is the Ally Sheedy character, minus all the frumpiness. She’s got spirit, personality, charm. An aspiring filmmaker and artist, she doesn’t fit in with the conservative flavor of Warsaw. She’s hardly an outcast, though. Just offbeat. Quirky. Of COURSE I’m crushing* on this girl. It seems clear she’s meant to be the star of the film – she’s given the final “where are they now” text, anyway – and for good reason. The other characters are entertaining, but take away Hannah and the whole movie falls apart. She’s that endearing.
It’s a testament to the kids featured in Teen that I wanted to know more about them. What were Colin’s thoughts on academics? What does band practice look like for Jake? Who is Mitch (it should be noted we learn NEXT TO NOTHING about the hottest guy in school)? They’re an interesting bunch, and worth a closer look. Burstein never digs deep enough, though, only occasionally hitting anything that seems fresh or revelatory. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film, but you can’t help but feel there was more to tell.
*Every three days or so I fall in love with a new lady. Tina Fey. Mary-Louise Parker. Occasionally they’re real, too, but I don’t feel like embarrassing anyone.
Anyone else see this movie? What did you think?