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Documentary
 

American Teen


A terrific, absorbing documentary about high school life

Phil Bacharach May 11th, 2011

They say youth is wasted on the young. That might be true, but high school is one rite of passage for which young people definitely earn their Purple Hearts.

american_teen_movie_image_mitch_reinholt

With its unforgiving caste system, peer pressures and never-ending crises, high school could reduce even the most hard-bitten survivalist into a knock-kneed mess. Regardless of your own high school experience, chances are a lot of memories will come flooding back with “American Teen,” a remarkable 2008 documentary that chronicles four teens navigating their senior year. It plays 1 p.m. Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art; all seats are $5.

Oscar-nominated documentarian Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) took her cameras to small town Warsaw, Ind., to follow school archetypes familiar to anyone who remembers John Hughes flicks of the Eighties. There is artsy rebel Hannah Bailey, easily the movie’s most endearing subject, who dreams of being a filmmaker. Affable jock Colin Clemens needs to get an athletic scholarship if he hopes to avoid the Army. Band geek Jake Tusing yearns for a girlfriend, but his social awkwardness gets in the way. Lording over them all is princess Megan Krizmanich, a popular and pretty blonde with a viper’s disposition.

Burstein is no cinema vérité traditionalist. Paring down more than 1,000 hours of footage, she molds the teenagers’ adventures into tightly constructed narratives. Hannah sinks into depression after a startling breakup, but eventually hooks up, surprisingly, with class heartthrob Mitch Reinholt. Colin, weathering pressure from his ex-jock dad, starts to choke on the basketball court. Jake endures several cringe-worthy, achingly funny attempts for romance. Megan spreads ill will among friend and foe alike.

The filmmaker breaks from the traditional documentary approach in other ways, too. Burstein shows the hopes and fears of her protagonists through clever animated vignettes that put a media-saturated spin on things. Jake’s longing for a girlfriend, for instance, is depicted through CG animation patterned after the “Legend of Zelda” video game he plays nonstop, while Hannah’s depression is illustrated by macabre, Quay brothers-styled stop-motion.

The trappings of high-tech media are firmly entrenched in the lives chronicled in “American Teen.” Megan’s casual humiliation of a friend travels at lightning speed over the Internet, while one of the picture’s more gasp-worthy moments involves a text-message breakup. If the film confirms that high school hasn’t changed too much over the years, it nevertheless does reveal a Facebook generation profoundly impacted by technology.

The movie is evocative and beautifully crafted, but you wouldn’t know it judging by the grumbling of documentary purists. Presumably because of a few likely staged shots and the degree of naked emotion that Burstein captures, some have accused “American Teen” of being phony. If the kids weren’t manipulated by the ever-present camera, so goes the argument, then they were doing their own manipulating by exaggerating their own actions.

I don’t buy it — or, to be more precise, I don’t buy that Burstein impacted her film’s subject matter any more than documentarians always do. News flash: Awareness of being watched invariably alters reality, but that does not negate the relevance and truth of what unfolds onscreen. “American Teen” is a terrific, absorbing movie; all detractors need to report to Saturday detention. —Phil Bacharach


 
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