"American Teen" follows five Indiana high schoolers through their senior year, shining hopes, pimples and all. Documentarian Nanette Burstein ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") diligently selects representative types -- "jock," "princess," "geek," "heartthrob," "rebel" -- in a small town that, if not exactly reflective of American demographics, does resemble some classic vision of Americana, albeit updated with text messaging and camera phones.
Such ordinariness is both strength and weakness here. The tribulations of these pockmarked archetypal references can evoke a familiar ache; on the other hand, by design, their stories aren't extraordinary. Here are casual cruelty, crushing heartbreak and pressure from parents and peers, all of which can involve the viewer but are nothing revelatory.
Among the thumbnail sketches: "Heartthrob" Mitch seems to be cruising through life; striving "geek" Jake is battling low self-esteem; and gentle "jock" Colin is betting everything on landing a basketball scholarship.
If there's a villain, it's "princess" Megan. Although the viewer is constantly reminded of the protagonists' youth, her smiling viciousness (and unrepentant whining after being caught terrorizing an enemy) can be tough to stomach.
The most compelling figure is "rebel" Hannah, who demonstrates love, passion and ambition. She's intelligent and deeply feeling but seems to have inherited her mother's chemical imbalance, making her prone to crippling lows among the emotional hills and valleys of high school.
The self-consciousness of some scenes can feel inauthentic, such as the film's storybook sports moments. And though the teens have insisted nothing was staged, they admit alerting Burstein "when big things were going to happen," making the exercise vulnerable to the observer effect.
Further distancing the viewer is the production's MTV slickness, including animated fantasy sequences that range from on the mark to cutesy but often distract from "reality."
The kids' mistakes make you cringe -- often with laughs of recognition -- and, during the film's most involving moments, makes you long to comfort them through their trials and cheer on their triumphs. If nothing else, "American Teen" reminds us that, though its charges aren't exactly Sudanese refugees, their pressures, joys and pains fill their worlds as much as anyone's do.
"American Teen." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking -- all involving teens. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. At the ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., (323) 464-4226; ArcLight Sherman Oaks, 15301 Ventura Blvd., (818) 501-7033; AMC Century 15, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 289-4AMC.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times