Remember back in the day when popularity meant something? You went to school and were immediately judged by how you looked, what you wore and whom you hung out with.
Nanette Burstein’s latest documentary, “American Teen,” takes a close look at senior year in a small high school in Warsaw, Ind. From a town of predominately white, conservative Christians, Burstein selects four students, each from different cliques, to observe for an entire year.
To begin, there is Megan Krizmanich, the “princess” of the school. Reminiscent of Regina George of “Mean Girls,” this popular, stuck-up gossip girl is referred to by her peers as “the biggest b****.” For someone spending most of her time creating drama and maintaining a high social status, Megan is surprisingly academically savvy. Her goal is to get accepted into Notre Dame, yet her less-than-sharp personal choices through senior year may inhibit her dream.
Then there’s Colin Clemens, the jock. Basketball is his life, as well as his ticket into college. As he desperately attempts to win a scholarship through his game, he struggles on the court. Due to his inability to trust his fellow team members, the Tigers lose game after game. The question is whether his issues on the court will ruin his only shot at getting into college.
Hannah Bailey is the rebellious girl of her class. In a town that’s composed of predominantly right-winged Christians, she’s known as “alternative.” With a huge passion for the arts and self-expression, Hannah is unafraid to be herself. Throughout senior year, she experiences several heartbreaks as well as a mental crisis. Hannah ends up missing several weeks of school because she simply can’t cope.
Finally there is Jake Tusing, the geek. Not to be confused with a nerd because he isn’t the brainiest person. Jake is into marching band, video games and finding a girlfriend who can put up with him. He explains himself as being “one sock” that needs to find his missing “sock mate.” When asking a girl on a date, he charmingly states, “We have a lot in common. We both suck at life.”
This documentary is a “Breakfast Club” wannabe. Burstein chooses almost the exact same social groups to study: the princess, the athlete, the rebel and the geek. According to the students, the school operates like a caste system. Kids like Megan and Colin are at the top and kids like Jake and Hannah are left feeling inferior.
For the most part, the students are shallow and so is the movie. Just when the audience begins to get a sense of each character, the attention is diverted elsewhere, making it difficult to connect to the teens.
These individuals have so much going on inside them, but the important issues are never addressed. What matters to Burstein is where social status’ play in, which is more of a flaw than a strongpoint.
Hannah is probably the most interesting character of the four. However, instead of focusing on what is wrong in the first place and what helps her overcome her struggle, the whole problem is glossed over when she gets a new boyfriend. Each student clearly has much insight about what it’s really like to be an American teen. Yet the entire film is superficially obsessed with the conflicts within cliques.
“American Teen” is a documentary that takes you back to everything you hated about high school. The drama, the bad dances, the awkward relationships. The pain is not worth reliving.
Staff writer Marjorie Hamburger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.