On the surface it seems harmless enough -- camera crews follow a group of small-town students during their senior year of high school for a film project designed to capture the transitional moments between childhood and adulthood. But Nanette Burstein’s new documentary, “American Teen,” has managed to generate almost as much controversy as it has critical praise.
The film that sparked a bidding war after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January -- and earned Burstein honors for directing -- also has been criticized as too glossy and too willfully mainstream. Some question its authenticity.
It’s been a frustrating turn of events for Burstein, an Academy Award nominee who had previously co-directed the documentaries “On the Ropes” and " The Kid Stays in The Picture” with Brett Morgen. For this project, Burstein said she set her sights on capturing the rituals of the teenage years as honestly as possible.
“I guess what I was looking for was the sort of things we all have to go through, the insecurity of being that age, trying to figure out your identity and the heartbreak and all the emotional vulnerability that I suspected still went on when you’re 17,” said Burstein, 38, by phone. “And it turned out there is very much a timelessness about that. Some things had changed, but the real emotional core of what you go through at that age very much stays the same.”
For the film, Burstein trained her lens on the small town of Warsaw, Ind., collecting more than 1,000 hours of footage over 10 months during the 2005-06 school year. She whittled her focus to five subjects, each of whom fits into sharply defined archetypes -- the jock, the rebel, the queen bee, the geek and the hunk. Along the way there are breakups, makeups, falling-outs and hook-ups, successes and failures both big and small and a feeling that the emotional skirmishes of being young do matter.
“There were two things that were unique about all these kids,” explained Burstein of how she landed on these five subjects. “One, they all had something they needed to achieve that year. They all had a good story, so I felt I had all these strong narrative arcs I could follow that were saying something larger. And the other thing about them, they surprised me when I first met them. You need subjects who are forthcoming and comfortable with exposing themselves. Otherwise it isn’t going to work.”
Finding the right mix of teens was only one of Burstein’s challenges, however. In an era when kids in even the smallest of towns have grown up on reality television and routinely bare their souls online, choosing subjects who would behave naturally in front of the cameras was crucial to the success of the film.
For their part, the teens insist they did not consciously put on a show or create any kind of fabricated persona.
“For the first month or so, you just stared at the lens the whole time, thinking, ‘They’re actually watching me,’ ” said Jake Tusing, the “geek” of the group, on getting used to the presence of a camera crew as part of his daily life. “It kind of sunk in that this was really happening. But by the end of that first period of time you didn’t even notice it anymore.”
“The first few weeks, I didn’t feel like I was performing,” explained Hannah Bailey, the film’s resident rebel, of the distinction between her real self and her depiction on screen. “But I didn’t feel like I could be myself, like I wasn’t worth taping somehow. It’s hard to think about because I didn’t think about the cameras, I was so self-absorbed with my life and just getting through high school that the cameras didn’t really come into play.”
Still, there have been questions about Burstein’s uncanny ability to have her crews in just the right spots for specific reaction shots or being on both ends of a phone call at once. Critic David Edelstein summed up reservations about the film’s tactics and intentions when he recently wrote, “the way it has been put together reminds me of those animal shows where the crew nudges the gazelles in the direction of the lions with multiple cameras standing by.”
“I was really surprised actually and have been upset by it,” Burstein said of the level of pushback “American Teen” has generated. “There’s accusations that it’s staged and scripted and that I went after the stereotypes, and it’s just not true.
“I think it’s unusual to have a very narrative documentary, so people aren’t used to it,” she continued. I think people have a hard time believing teenagers are willing to be that intimate on camera. So sometimes I feel I’m being criticized for what the film’s achievements are.”
Burstein also believes she’s being targeted for wanting to make a documentary film with broad appeal, which runs counter to the image many have of docs as dry, wonky films driven by policy and ideology.
“I do want as many people to see it as possible,” Burstein said, “and I’m not approaching it with as much of a political agenda as more of an anthropological one. And I want to entertain people, I want to move them in the same way a fiction film would.”