American Teen by Nanette Burstein

In a poll, two-thirds said being a teenager is harder for them than it was for their parents. Its fair to ask whether any teenage generation has ever thought otherwise TIME Magazine, July 31, 2005

Its senior year in a typical American high school and five students–a jock, a geek, a princess, a heartthrob and a rebel–are teetering on the brink of the future. All they have to do is survive the greatest pressures theyve ever known–an incredible onslaught of parental expectations, personal insecurities, college dreams, romantic nightmares, sports disasters, prom night nerves, petty vandalism, public embarrassment and the perils of friendship and theyll get their first big shot at real life.

From director Nanette Burstein comes the Sundance Film Fest hit, AMERICAN TEEN, a funny, fast-paced tale of one Indiana graduating class that becomes a provocative window into what 21st Century teens are thinking, doing, feeling and going through right now.

Burstein started with raw, spontaneous documentary footage of a handful of real-life teenagers in a small Midwestern high school; then, she ingeniously structured her film into a compelling narrative that cuts to the very core of what makes being young so exciting, dangerous and unforgettable–a non-stop mix of wild emotions, fierce hopes, heart-wrenching mistakes, comic misunderstandings and moments of revelation and connection you hold onto for the rest of your life, no matter who you areor are about to become.

Defying categories, Burstein uses an ample creative arsenal, including animated sequences, collages, voiceovers and music, to redefine the straight-ahead documentary as a humor-fueled dramatic experience that resonates with anyone who is or ever was a teenager.

There are currently more than 32 million teenagers in the United States. That number has risen 15.5 percent since 1990–U.S. Census Data, 2005

Teenagers have long been a powerful symbol in American culture. Theres something about their brash, reckless, idealistic personalities, about their unfinished identities and uninhibited emotions that seems to mirror the nations personality. They invite extreme interpretations–equally deplored as a sign of all thats wrong with our alienated, sexualized, consumer-driven society and revered and idolized as all the talent, creativity, energy and hope that is going to drive the worlds future. So central is the teenager in the American imagination that teens have long also been a compelling subject for popular movies, from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE to AMERICAN GRAFFITI to THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

There have been countless fictional teens that have won over movie audiences. But what happens when you put a group of five real Middle American teenagers together in the boiling pressure-cooker that is senior year and all the stereotypes and social hierarchies that define nerds, athletes, basket cases, popular girls and misfits start to fall away A defining teen movie for these times, AMERICAN TEEN is at heart about how we all construct our identities and set in motion our fates out of the angst and ecstasy of being 17.

The film began with documentarian Nanette Bursteins unusual vision of making a film that would expand on the classic teen comedies of John Hughes THE BREAKFAST CLUB, PRETTY IN PINK, SIXTEEN CANDLES via a fresh, honest, 3-dimensional, 21st Century reality. I grew up watching movies such as FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and THE BREAKFAST CLUB. Those films had a profound affect on me back then because I could so relate to the portrayal of adolescence and all of its challenges. For the last fifteen years, I have wanted to explore those same themes in a nonfiction film but with all of the complexities and depth of real people that are often lacking in the teen fictional movies. Burstein explains.

She says: Like most people, I struggled through my own high school years, and I wanted to make a film that explored the very real and very intense pressures of being 17: of trying to figure out who you are while pushed by your peers to be a certain way, pressured by your parents as to who you should become, and face the mounting pressure to make crucial decisions inevitably, poorly-informed ones – about your future, she explains. But I wanted to explore the theme of struggling to find your identity, not with actors, but with real teenagers.

Burstein already had developed a reputation for taking the documentary form to new and more emotionally accessible places. Previously, she directed the Oscar-nominated ON THE ROPES, a riveting tale of three Brooklyn boxers vying for a shot at the big time that drew comparisons to big-budget sports dramas; and co-directed the acclaimed THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, a look at the rise and fall of the charismatic, high-living producer and studio head Robert Evans which was hailed as an innovative and entertaining twist on the biopic.

She knew, however, that making AMERICAN TEEN was not going to be like any other experience. First, she would have to find a way to get deep inside the inner lives of some of the most preternaturally suspicious and secretive people on earth: teenagers. Then she would have to fly by the seat of her pants, waiting to see what unpredictable twists and turns her narrative might take who would fall in love, who would fall apart, who would attain their dreams, who would still be searching — over the course of many months of patience, negotiation and investigation.

The journey began with an epic quest to find the right school, and Burstein initially limited her search to the American heartland. The Midwest is often held up as quintessentially or conventionally American, she explains, and I was also looking for the kind of town that only has one high school. If a town only has one school, its that much harder for kids to escape the social structure and I wanted to explore that kind of inescapable social pressure cooker, she comments. I also looked for towns that were economically mixed and racially mixed, although the latter was much harder to come by in the Midwest, so that I could explore how those kinds of differences play out in the teen world. And, perhaps most crucially, I needed a school where the people would be truly excited about the prospect of a having a movie made about them and were willing to grant me a great deal of access.

After narrowing the list down to ten prospective schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana, Burstein began more intensively interviewing incoming members of the senior class at each of the ten schools to figure out which had the most intriguing and emotionally diverse group of students. Ultimately, at the peak of this extensive process, she chose Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana, a town in the north of the state, far from any major city, and a population of just over 12,000 people.
Known, according to the towns website, as the orthopedic manufacturing capital of the world, Warsaw is a microcosm of typical Midwestern American towns that were built on traditional jobs and family structures and feature a lot of class diversity, from wealthy to working-class families. But what really convinced Burstein that she had found the right place to make her movie were the high school students she met there, a group of savvy yet sincere, tough yet funny, anxious yet articulate kids who seemed to both encompass and defy the typical teen stereotypes of jocks, freaks, queen bees, hunks and renegades. Most of all, she felt she had come across a rare group of kids on the precipice of adulthood who would be as capable of raw honesty as of compelling surprises in that journey. Given the themes I wanted to explore, Warsaw had the richest subjects and storylines, she comments, adding, The town also had the best restaurants, which turned out to be a godsend in the year to come!

After choosing Warsaw, Burstein picked up and moved there, having already planned to spend the entire school year living amidst the subjects of her film and hoping to become so close to them that the cameras would become a natural part of their everyday lives. I knew I would need to film daily for the entire school year so that I would have enough footage to show the most dramatic and telling moments of my subjects lives, she says. And I knew I also needed time to gain the kids trust. But time was on my side, because I had all year.

73% of teens say their parents trust them as much as they deserve to be trusted; 21% say their parents dont trust them as much as they should–Gallup Youth Survey, 2005

Burstein wound up following five primary subjects, each in very different cliques yet who ultimately all impact each others lives: Hannah Bailey, an artsy, alt-rocker outsider who would much rather escape Warsaw than fit in; Colin Clemens, a star athlete who has been riding high as the schools favorite jock, but now knows he must either win a college scholarship or head to Iraq; Jake Tusing, an insecure, self-titled marching band supergeek and videogame addict who would do anything to have just one girlfriend before high school comes to an end; Megan Krizmanich, the brash-mouthed rich girl who rules the school as one of the most popular (and reviled) students in it, but faces enormous family pressure about her college future; and sensitive heartthrob Mitch Reinholt who enters the picture as Hannahs unlikely new boyfriend who gets the whole school gossiping.

Though it wasnt instantaneous, Burstein slowly began to gain the confidence of Hannah, Colin, Jake, Megan and Mitch simply by getting to know them as intimately as she could, listening like a trusted confidante to their stories, confessions, dreams and fears. Each one had his or her own major and minor personal issues, which also shifted and evolved over the school year, sometimes in ways no one could have anticipated. Hannah went through a devastating heartbreak and a dark phase before rediscovering her spirit and California-bound ambition; Colin found himself in a dangerous scoring slump that had his father putting major pressure on him to perform; Jake found himself once again the victim of several near-misses at love, becoming more and more self-aware of his loser status; Megan made a mean girl-style detour that nearly unraveled her entire future; and gallant Mitch battled peer pressure to end his relationship with the outsider.

To capture all of these spontaneous, richly relatable moments in their poignancy, Burstein let her young subjects know right from the beginning that she wasnt going to be an authority-figure in their lives. She wasnt their teacher, their parents or their coaches and that she wasnt going to judge them or ridicule them or do anything other than do her best to capture them for who they really were underneath their roiling surfaces. Teenagers lead a very Lord Of The Flies and secretive existence, so gaining their trust was essential, Burstein observes. It took a few months for me to become close friends with them, and at the same time, for them to trust that I was really there to tell their stories honestly.
After gaining their trust, I would show up at the school every morning and speak to each of them about what was going on in their lives so I knew what to film each day, said Burstein. If a drama was just starting to brew, we would discuss what I could film of it. It was definitely a constant negotiation. I wanted to be very respectful of them, especially since they were so young, but at the same time, to make a good and honest movie. So we both made compromises along the way, and I think it actually made for a much better film.

The tight bond that Burstein developed with the students made them each feel especially at ease in front of the camera. They were able to be themselves, and not censor or over-dramatize their behavior. When her subjects felt especially private, Burstein even left her crew behind, shooting by herself with a very small camera. There were times when certain people didnt feel like being filmed, so I had to really weigh each situation, she says. I didnt want to ever expose them in damaging ways. But I always wanted to show their complicatedness and humanity.