My favorite Sundance movie: ‘American Teen’

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Just back from single-digit weather in Park City -- I am more congested than the 405 at rush hour, thank you very much. But I managed to see a few great movies at Sundance and my favorite film was a documentary called ‘American Teen.’

The filmmaker -- Nanette Burstein -- spent a year in Warsaw, Ind., and shot 1,000 hours of footage at a high school. The results are priceless and as of yesterday, there was talk that Paramount Vantage might buy the film. (Left is Jake, the band geek, who broke my heart.)
I wrote about ‘American Teen’ and interviewed the director for our Calendar section and so, I will post my story here:

High school doc a hot property


PARK CITY, Utah -- So far, the buyer’s market at Sundance has proved to be as frigid as the temperatures in Park City. There’s been some buzz here and there but no direct heat surrounding any one film.

All that changed when a documentary called ‘American Teen’ screened on Saturday. It was clear that the film had generated interest by the flashes of blue light in the audience, as acquisition folks frantically texted their business affairs departments to start negotiations.

In a phone interview Sunday morning, the director, Nanette Burstein, said that she had been ‘in talks’ until 4 that morning with potential buyers. ‘It’s been surreal in a good way,’ she said. ‘I just want it to find the right home.’

Miramax and Fox Searchlight were among those in the early bidding, but they dropped out as the sales price for North American rights climbed toward $2 million. No deal had been closed by Sunday afternoon, but a potential sale (other parties included Paramount Vantage) was expected before today.

This isn’t Burstein’s first successful foray at Sundance. Her last documentary, ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture,’ premiered at Sundance in 2002 and went on to be a commercial and critical success.

To make ‘American Teen,’ she spent the 2005-06 school year shooting footage of four seniors at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana. She scouted 10 different schools in three states before setting up camp in the Midwest.

‘I wanted a town, with just one high school, that was economically mixed,’ says Burstein, who then interviewed all of Warsaw’s incoming seniors for 20 minutes before selecting her stars. ‘I just picked people that I really liked.’

In the end, she chose quintessential archetypes that used to collide in every John Hughes film. There’s the band geek named Jake whose acne flares with each romantic rejection and the jock, Colin, who is as affable as a golden Lab. Hannah is the quirky Molly Ringwald-esque misfit with dreams of becoming a film director, while the rich, blond queen bee named Megan wages psychological warfare on anyone who threatens her power.

For the 37-year-old Burstein, gaining the teens’ trust took a few months. ‘They’re very protective of their lives and suspicious of adults,’ she says. Working with one camera crew, she maintained daily contact with the four students to stay abreast of their lives. ‘I was constantly on call, texting and i-chatting. '

In ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture,’ Burstein used photo animation to flesh out the life of Hollywood producer Robert Evans. This time around, she worked with Blacklist to create vivid animation sequences that convey the fantasy lives of each teen. The results are poignant, though predictable: The geek gets the girl; the jock scores the winning shot.

‘You don’t get that wish-fulfillment in real life,’ says Burstein of the animated vignettes. The most haunting sketch -- which feels like a macabre take on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ -- reveals Hannah’s fear that she will inherit her mother’s mental illness. ‘I spent a lot of time talking to them about their secret fears and fantasies.’

In some ways, the film feels as choreographed as an episode of ‘The Hills.’ The popular girl predictably reigns like a despot and turns on her best friend. The jock’s father, an Elvis impersonator who hoped to play pro ball back in the day, pressures his son to make 12 rebounds at the big game. Around Park City, there have been whispers that Burstein may have scripted the doc.

‘It’s not scripted and I didn’t make any arrangements with the kids to act a certain way,’ says Burstein, who shot 1,000 hours of footage. ‘I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it plays like fiction because it’s so moving. Maybe it speaks to the polish of the film.’

Or to the fact that Hollywood truly is like high school.

Photo credits: Nanette Burstein