Day 95: American Teen (2008)

When I was in high school, I had a thing about being on time. I dreaded being late to any event. Looking back, I realize that this was because I was a shy person. I didn’t want to have any extra attention drawn my way, and walking in to a room full of people as they turn to eye the latecomer seemed tortuous to me. I even have nightmares about it to this day. So, many times, I would go to school early. Like really early. My dad was a janitor at the small town high school I attended and worked first shift. He would start at 6 am, so sometimes I would wake up in time to catch a ride with him. Dad would drive the old Renault from our farm through the gravel roads in the wee hours of the morning—usually before the Sun hit the eastern horizon– and I would sit in the stiff passenger seat. I knew the bus would take the same route about an hour later, but it barely made it to school in time for the first bell. If I could help it, there was no way I would be late.


When we arrived at school,my father and I would have breakfast together. During this time, my Dad would read the newspaper, and we would talk while we ate. Afterward, my father would start with his work, and I would hang out in the old gym at a cafeteria table. I used this time to read or do schoolwork (hey, I was kind of a boring kid, all right?). Once students started to file into the building, I headed up to my locker, put my books away, and went to the band room for  my first class of the day. I had already been at school longer than some of my peers had been awake, and I was ready to get through the school day with no surprises. Seriously, my worst dreams usually involve a pop quiz in my Calculus class. Or dinosaurs. The dreams are equally frightening.


I’m not sure why, but that is what I remember most from high school. Not the only thing, mind you, but it’s one of the memories that pushes itself to the forefront of my brain. Once I graduated, I went to college. I will be the first to admit that I am pretty bad about keeping in touch with my friends. It’s nothing malicious on my part, but apparently I can be an airhead. As time went by, I started to think less about the events of yesteryear. However, with the surge of social networking and the availability of email, I have been able to reconnect with friends from this part of my life. With the wisdom that years bring, I have to wonder what I missed while I was in high school. This may be a surprise, but teens can be very self-centered. I was probably so focused on my own experiences, that it was difficult to see that everyone around me had their own, full lives. It is this broad concept of exploring high schoolers’ lives that American Teen wants to tackle.


American Teen is a documentary by Nanette Burstein that follows five high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana (with a population of around 13,000). I am actually not sure why this city was selected, but I can only assume from the title of the movie that the filmmaker was in search of “real America” (to paraphrase Tina Fey in 30 Rock, aren’t all Americans real Americans?). Nonetheless, the film documents several aspects of these teens’ lives: their friends, romantic relationships, family issues, and their social status at school. It attempts to provide a wide scope of experiences of “American teens”: from a popular girl feared by her classmates to a band geek struggling to form relationships, and from a “wild child” artist-type teen to a couple of jocks.


On the surface, American Teen is a very enjoyable movie. It’s filled with drama, and engaging stories. At times, it felt almost like a soap opera—but apparently I must like to watch that genre (huh, who knew?) because I had no issues sitting through the hour and forty minutes running time of the film. As far as entertainment goes, American Teen delivers.


I appreciate that the film crew must have shot thousands of hours of footage. Since they followed these five teens through their senior years, I can only imagine how much was shot. It must have been quite a task to not only sort through, but make a story out of the raw footage. Although it was an enormous amount of work, I think it paid off to show these students throughout the year. It allows the audience to not only form connections to the subjects, but allows for a natural story progression. We get to see if a certain couple stays together, or if an aspiring athlete is able to obtain a college scholarship. What can I say? I am a sucker for story and for closure.


But—yes, there is always a but—when I think about the film, I am left with several questions. I already discussed some issues I have with documentaries and what is “real” in a previous post. American Teen made me question what was real in the film. For example, many of the teens are shown texting in the documentary. On the bottom of the screen, like subtitles, the content of these messages is [supposedly] displayed. Scenes of students texting are edited together to make it seem as if they are all discussing the same topic. However, I question the validity of this. Should I trust that the filmmakers just happened to be shooting these subjects simultaneously when they received the texts? Also, I guess I will take Berstein’s word that the text on the screen were actually the messages students sent to each other. Throughout the film, there are several occasions that I had to wonder about the role of editing in creating the drama. Yeah, I know I am cynical. It’s not as much fun as it looks, trust me.


Also, while I am picking apart the film, I want to address the choice of students American Teen focused on. It seemed as though the film assumes there are only four categories students could fall in: popular, band geek, jock, or free spirited. While I think these were interesting students to follow, I would have liked to see perhaps other teens’ lives highlighted. I understand that it would be impossible to give every student a voice, but there have to be more than four social categories. This just seemed to reiterate the Hollywood stereotype of high school students. I have seen American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Can’t Hardly Wait, thank you very much.


Criticism aside, American Teen makes me wonder about the importance of high school. Why do these four years seem to impact our lives so much? What makes high school the place where many of us define ourselves? Why do some events from high school stick with us? Perhaps these are questions best asked at another time, but I am left mulling them over after I saw the film.


Overall, I have to say that I liked American Teen as entertainment. However, I don’t think I would take it too seriously as an informative depiction of a modern teen’s life. Surprisingly, this two-year-old film is rather dated– it is pre-Facebook (omg and such).


Have an awesome Valentine’s Day!


Score: C+

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