No doubt director Nanette Burstein went at this project with an open mind and an open heart, along with an open lens and an open mike. Burstein spent the 2005-06 school year roaming the hallways and psyches of Warsaw High School, home of the Tigers. Early on, in voice-over, Warsaw is described as an Indiana town (of nearly 13,000) like a lot of other Midwestern burgs, "mostly white, mostly Christian—Red State all the way."
Consciously evoking the archetypes and fearsomely divisive cliques of a John Hughes screenplay, notably "The Breakfast Club," Burstein focuses on five kids entering senior year. Warsaw being a basketball town, the film gravitates toward star player Colin Clemens, the lantern-jawed son of a sometime Elvis impersonator/ex-high school jock. The pressure is on for Colin to grab the attention of the college recruiters.
Teammate Mitch Reinholt is a classic American gentleman-jock, bright, well-liked, studious. He's the social polar opposite of band geek and perpetual gamer Jake Tusing, whose attempts to find a girlfriend are hobbled by a self-image as severe as his acne.
Atop the socioeconomic ladder sits the school's snarky blond queen bee, Megan Krizmanich, whose most vindictive behavior suggests a pile-up of "Heathers" and "Mean Girls." More than most adolescents, even, Megan's sensitivities are out of whack (there's a painful personal loss in her recent past), though the way "American Teen" reduces her to her most petty impulses seems suspect. At one point, Burstein's camera follows her as she toilet-papers a rival student's house, spray-painting the word "FAG" and landing in trouble with the cops. It's possible she would've done all this without the presence of Burstein's camera. Possible, but likely?
The film's heart and soul belongs, clearly, to the fifth subject. Hannah Bailey is the quirky, pretty, liberal-arts exception to all she sees as thwarting her personality in Warsaw. Hannah copes with severe depression, triggered by a rough breakup. It's crippling enough to cast doubts on her graduation. Then, an unexpected turn: She gets involved with Mitch, to the puzzlement of their respective herds. At this point "American Teen" lays off the easy stereotyping and facile technique and starts getting somewhere.
For every judiciously chosen detail and pensive close-up Burstein includes in her film, there's another shot—such as the early depiction of two kids, alone in a high school hallway, talking about something personal—that you do not quite believe. The reality-TV vibe creeps in, and suddenly everyone on screen appears to be playing herself or himself, rather than just being.
Yet it's hard not to be pulled into the day-to-day crises and machinations of the five high school students we meet here. As Bailey and Reinholt try to figure out what they mean to each other, just before they're about to launch themselves into a new orbit entirely, "American Teen" more or less demolishes your objections to scenes in which schoolmates, hanging out in a rec room, start venting their jealousy and slapping each other around. You wonder if the camera's presence egged these kids on to various forms of dramatic expression. Actually, you don't wonder: You know.
Yet you care. You care about the kids, including Megan, the most flagrantly camera-conscious of the bunch. Burstein may not know when to back off, but she's genuinely curious about all she sees. I bet audiences, particularly young audiences, will respond to this picture. And I doubt most paying customers will mind if "American Teen" seems, on some level, phony. More and more we prefer our reality scenarios that way.
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "American Teen."