High school just isn't what it used to be--or is it? In the startling new documentary "All American High" (at the Nuart) kids gingerly dissect frogs ("Oooh, there's something in there!" one girl squeals), get dolled up for the prom and dream about the future--one lad, wearing a torn Dead Kennedy T-shirt, wants to be a Marine.

But for every familiar ritual, there's an equally bizarre event that has the nutty theatricality of a Geraldo Rivera special. Where else could you find a "Modern Lifestyles" class with a teacher--wearing a huge red valentine sandwich board--who stages mock weddings, advising his pupils that "hopefully, this experience will help you on game day."

This topsy-turvy blend of the innocent and the exotic is what gives "All American High" such an unlikely wallop. Shot by young documentarian Keva Rosenfeld, it presents us with a year's worth of video scrapbook memories from Torrance High School, as seen through the eyes of Rikki Rauhala, a Finnish exchange student. The choice of Rauhala is a wonderful stroke of good fortune. Bright and bubbly, she has so much frisky charm that it's easy to imagine her being voted "most popular" at any Helsinki high school. But she's more than just an engaging narrator. As an outsider, she has a fresh perspective on the strange mores of this peppy teen-age wasteland.

What the local kids take for granted, Rauhala views with fascination. She's only seen cheerleaders "in the movies," she's never been to a wild "motel party" and she's positively enchanted by the notion of having a school dance inside a local mall--especially when she finds herself cavorting in front of a store where she bought a dress earlier that day. Rauhala is equally amazed by America's casual affluence. As she puts it: "No one asks if you're going 'to the prom' in a limo, but who you're going in the limo with!"

American slang also has Rauhala's senses reeling. If she's utterly baffled by the way her friends call a group of girls "you guys," she's completely fascinated by the loopy grammatical structure of teen obscenities, marveling at how a pair of familiar swear words can be used interchangeably as either nouns or adjectives, depending on which merits the most emphasis.

Rarely intrusive and never condescending, "All American High" shows us a generation of youngsters desperately eager to shed their gangly adolescent insecurities and enjoy the fruits of adulthood. Asked to ponder the nuclear arms race, the kids appear vague and distracted. But when quizzed about career dreams, they're suddenly full of vivid certainty. "I'm going to be a cruise instructor," one student leader insists. Others want to be psychologists and cops. Anyone who doesn't think kids pay rapt attention to media messages should listen to the girl who, when asked to describe her future household, weaves an elaborate fantasy, full of decorator-row imagery ("I like the sheepskin and wood look").

Rosenfeld seems especially intrigued by events outside the classroom, following Rauhala's dictum that "high school prepares you more for social life than real life." While Rauhala is clearly the most distinctive figure here, her other classmates often get a chance to take center stage.

Our favorite was the young entrepreneur who hosted a paid-admission beer blast when his folks were away, which Rosenfeld pieces together as if it were a raucous outtake from "Risky Business." With a squad of hired school-chum bouncers (all wearing Uncle Sam top hats) on hand to keep revelers in check, our host reveals his secret party-clearing technique--he calls the cops himself. Lying sprawled on his bed, waving a saber and surrounded by wads of cash, he nonchalantly boasts that the party grossed $1,832, noting that "if there are no damages, then it's sheer profit after expenses."

Rosenfeld makes no claims for Torrance High as a typical outpost of American education, though it has the wholesome aura of a suburban school--the naming of the homecoming queen is still accompanied by a teary round of hugs and smooches. (The suburbs are still very white--the only black we hear from in the entire film is a Marine recruiter, who is peppered with questions about the Army's penalties for drug use.)

Wisely presented without narration, "All American High" avoids any grand statements about the United States' crumbling educational system. But draw your own conclusions. Shortly before Rauhala departs, she broods about returning to Finland, where she'll have to tackle term papers and other rigorous academic duties that seem in short supply at Torrance. Anyone who wonders about how American education stacks up against Old World standards can get a quick fix from Rauhala. Flashing a wide grin, she coolly boasts: "I got good grades, though I didn't do anything."

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