American Teen (2008): Docu of One Year in the Lives of High-Schoolers (Sundance Fest)

Sundance Film Fest 2008 (Documentary Competition)–Slick and entertaining but shallow, Nanette Burstein’s documentary “American Teen” is a disappointing chronicle of a year in the lives of a bunch of high-schoolers.

Given that she had spent a lengthy time with her subjects and that it’s a personal film, aiming to debunk clichs that have prevailed in Hollywood youth movies of the past 50 years, “American Teen” is all the more frustrating. It shows that the director has opted for facile entertainment values and glossy style at the expense of a poignant look at today’s youth-and America’s future.

Polished to a fault, accompanied to melodic tunes, and decorated with animation sequences and other stylistic devices, such as collages and voiceovers, “American Teen” raises serious issues of credibility, selection and omission of episodes, and manipulation of footage conducted in the editing room, as Burstein is also credited as co-editor.

The docu covers a year in the lives of five high school seniors, all character types (by design, I take) in a largely white middle-class milieu, Warsaw, Indiana. Semi-touching, semi-hilarious, semi-smart (everything about the picture is semi), “American Teen” follows the lives of a jock, a popular girl, a heartthrob, an artsy girl, and a geek through their senior year of high school.

The screenings at the Sundance Film Fest, where the film premiered in the Documentary Competition, went extremely well, which might explain the bidding war among distributors. Paramount Vantage got the desirable film, one of the few deemed commercial at Sundance this year, which will open July 25 in big cities, before rolling out nationally.

Who are the subjects

Hannah Bailey is smart and beautiful but a misfit in her high school, because she’s a liberal atheist living in a Christian conservative town and dreaming of moving to California right after graduation.

Colin Clemens, the star of the high school basketball team in a town where basketball is everything, is under enormous pressures. He plays ambitiously not only to make his town and his father proud, but also in order to gain a college scholarship. Colin has managed to remain a nice guy despite his celeb status.

Considered to be a nerd in school, Jake Tusing, though seemingly funny and charming, is painfully shy in group situations and public space, troubled by serious issues of insecurity and self-doubts. In his senior year, Jake vows that nothing will stand in his way to find a girlfriend worthy of him.

Megan Krizmanich, the student council Vice President, is the youngest daughter of a prominent local surgeon, anxiously awaiting word from Notre Dame University admissions office. Megan appears to have it all-she’s wealthy, pretty, smart and popular–ruling her high school with firm hand. However, when Megan’s peers challenge her authority, she’s willing to take the kind of action that might risk her future.

Finally, there’s Mitch Reinholt, an attractive and charming Varsity basketball jock with a soft side. When he puts his social status on the line, avoiding his popular friends for dates with artsy Hannah Bailey, he strains to maintain his reputation but stands to discover (and gain) a new facet of himself.

“American Teen” has the misfortune of being released in a national elections year, when reportedly unprecedented numbers of youths are becoming more involved in the political process and plan to vote for the first time in November. Don’t expect any discussion of political or social issues from Burstein’s picture, which mysteriously and
inexcusably has decided to skip more serious and relevant issues that preoccupy teenagers, such as sex or drugs. Is that because these problems are boring and routine

Burstein’s previous non-fictional work, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” was also glitzy and superficial but you didn’t care so much because the subject matter, the “legendary” movie producer Robert Evans, was a big shot in Hollywood but a minor figure in the overall scheme.

Shooting daily for ten months, Burstein intended to explore and understand her subjects on a deeper level. However, the end result is a film that doesn’t go much beyond the enduring stereotypes of high school, lacking depth and complexity in dealing with the crucial, universal phase of youths trying to find their way into adulthood and carve their place in a rapidly changing world.

Burstein may look down as popular pictures such as James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” or the John Hughes’ 1980s features (“The Breakfast Club”), but despite their gloss veneer and melodramatic format, they deal with youth anxieties we can still relate too; that’s the reason we visit and revisit them. In contrast, “American Teen” offers an easy time but frustrating experience, a superficial film that doesn’t have much to say about the ways teenagers live, feel, and think today.


Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Jake Tusing, Geoff Haase, Mitch Reinholt, Ali Wikalinska.


An A&E IndieFilms presentation of a Firehouse Films and Quasiworld Entertainment production in association with 57th and Irving.
Produced by Nanette Burstein, Jordan Roberts, Eli Gonda, Chris Huddleston.
Executive producers, Elisa Pugliese, Patrick Morris, Molly Thompson, Nancy Dubuc, Rob Sharenow.
Co-producers, Ryan Harrington, Steve Rosenbaum. Directed by Nanette Burstein.
Camera: Laela Kilbourn, Wolfgang Held, Robert Hanna.
Editors: Mary Manhardt, Tom Haneke, Nanette Burstein.
Original music, Michael Penn; music supervisor, Chris Douridas.
Supervising sound producer-sound designer, Michael Chock.
Sound mixer: Anna Rieke.
Animation: Blacklist.

Running time: 99 Minutes