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Aug 12, 2008

Fletch's Film Review: American Teen

"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."

That quote is from American Teen director Nanette Burnstein in a July 23 interview with the L.A. Times. It's funny that she says that, because that lack of an agenda, or really, of any story to tell, was what struck me the most about Teen. You might be saying, "that's exactly the point of a documentary" - to not have a story, but these days, it's hard to think of any documentary that doesn't either have a hard-line angle or agenda (Michael Moore) or at least document a specific event or set of events.

American Teen merely documents. The premise? To follow around a group of five (really four, but more on that later) archetypal high school students - the poster says it all - for their senior year. And so the film flutters about from one to the next as the days and weeks go by, slowly peeling away the layers of each's personality. There's no underlying goal for the film - merely to go where the kids lead it.

The L.A. Times article centers mostly on claims that American Teen was staged or "about Burstein's uncanny ability to have her crews in just the right spots," but such conspiracy theories ring pretty hollow, as the film show's, if nothing else, how normal (and arguably boring) these kids are. That's not necessarily a strike against them so much as it's a validation of Burnstein's response that the film is indeed true; after all, these kids aren't turning tricks or doing meth - arguably, the biggest trouble any gets in is when "Rebel" Hannah misses so much school that she might be forced to repeat her senior year. The horror!

If there is any place for an angle to be found, it's that the film, set in rural Indiana (population ~13,000) centers on and identifies most strongly with Hannah, describes herself as a "liberal in a conservative town." Dying to move out of the Midwest and off to San Francisco, which she knows nothing about other than the fact that it's got to be better than where she currently is, Hannah is the self-proclaimed oddball of the film (and her high school). I can't help but wonder if Burnstein saw perhaps a bit too much of herself in Hannah, who is, amongst other things, an aspiring filmmaker. In and of itself, this is a relatively minor bias even if it is true, but it's one that warrants mentioning nonetheless.

My bigger gripe with the film is even more trivial. As you can clearly see in the poster or in any other marketing material for the film, there are five students touted as the "stars:" the aforementioned Rebel Hannah, Princess Megan, Athlete Colin, Hunk Mitch and Geek Jake. However, one gets the feeling that Paramount Vantage really really wanted a little bit o' beefcake to help sell the film, as Hunky Mitch is really a fifth wheel (if that), with the film never telling his story when it's not peripheral to the other stars.

As I said, though, that's small potatoes. Overall, American Teen shows us that, more than anything else, the kids are alright - at least the kids in a small, Midwestern town trying to find their way through the perils of high school and into college. But if they get out of line, they shouldn't hesitate for one second to bring in this guy:

Fletch's Film Rating:

"Darn tootin!"

Some final unrelated thoughts:

* While Megan (the princess) is undoubtedly cast as the villain of the film, the shocking part was that her parents seem to be the most well-adjusted of all the parents that we really get to meet. Hannah's relationship with her manic depressive mother and absentee (?) father is headed towards estrangement, if it isn't already there, and Colin's father, though possibly well intentioned, fails to care much what his son wants ("College or Army - that's it!" Has no one ever heard of community college in Warsaw, Indiana?). (We only see Jake's mother, and briefly at that, so no judgement can be rendered.)

* Speaking of Jake, I was expecting to root for the geeky underdog after reading a bit about the film, but he makes it really, really hard to do so. It's one thing to be the geek who wants girls; it's another to be a self-esteemless geek with a bad hairdo and a worse personality. There is almost nothing about Jake that is appealing outside of the slightest hint of a dry sense of humor. Here's hoping that college lightens him up, gives him some confidence and makes him a more interesting person.

* Hannah is undoubtedly the most appealing student featured, but damned if she doesn't kill some of that appeal with her post-breakup depression fit. Also not helping: her aforementioned parents and grandmother (that she lives with). How they could allow a high school senior to miss what appears to be two weeks of school over a breakup is beyond me. To make matters worse, Hannah feels worse about returning to school the longer she is out. Um, she should have been tossed back into school after a day, if that - coddling (and enabling) at its worst.

10 people have chosen wisely: on "Fletch's Film Review: American Teen"

Joseph said...

Nice review. I'm curious if there will be a 'sequel' of sorts one of these days.

Daniel G. said...

I can't fault any of your reactions to it, and I have to admit that I was really impressed by it because I had seen it really early and with no hype.

But, it sounds like your biggest criticism is that it "documents". Sure, many (but not all) documentaries these days have agendas, but the ones that are pure shouldn't be faulted for being pure!

Fletch said...

Joseph - that would be cool - American Adult, no? The only bad part is that the 7UP series has probably already covered that grounf.

Daniel - it's weird. My pointing out its style and/or lack of an agenda isn't really all that much of a criticism. In one sense, it was really refreshing, but I guess it did somewhat influence my rating. I didn't mean it as an indictment of the film at all, though.

I guess this review is kind of a failure, as I really didn't point out much that "good" or "bad" about it. Though, somehow, this makes me feel that that's in the spirit of the film. It didn't really make any value judgments, and I didn't, either.

Dead Pan said...

I don't think in a review you need to point out all the problems and victories of the film. I think a critic merely needs to lay it out there for the reader/would be viewer to make their own judgment on whether or not to see the film. If you found nothing glaringly flawed or outstanding then it comes through in your review. =)

Fletch said...

Thanks for the encouraging words, Shawn.

Daniel G. said...

I admit you didn't come down too hard on any one aspect of it, and I should let your rating speak for itself. I just thought you listed more negative things than positive. As it is, though, I agree with the things that annoyed you anyway, like Hannah's fit and the marketing angle.

Shannon the Movie Moxie said...

Great review!

I have to say that I though Hannah's bout with not going to school was one of the most realistic and relateable aspects of the life.

Overall I wanted more, it didn't feel staged to me though - high school always seems to have lots of drama to go around!

Nayana Anthony said...

Good review. I agree with most of it.

But come on, boys (Fletch & Daniel):

I understand Hannah's fit. She's a supercool girl who hasn't really realized that her coolness is not predicated on who does & doesn't like her. After high school, she'll figure it out. I've been there. I admit I was quite weepy after the Star Trek geek cut me loose. But you are right about one big thing: the parents/grandmother must have been on crack to indulge her that way. Let the girl nurse her broken heart, but her ass goes back to school after one day, two tops.

Fletch said...

Nayana - we've all been there, to be sure. But there's a big difference between even a breakup that shatters your social life (like Mikey's in Swingers) and one that threatens to disrupt the totality of your life for weeks on end.

Though she is supercool. I was truly sad that Mitch turned out to be just like Megan and friends predicted him to be: he felt the pressure of not dating one of the "in-crowd" and acted like a totally different person when placed in a social setting with Hannah. Sad. They were a cute couple.

Nayana Anthony said...

It really was sad. I wanted to like him, just because he saw her uniqueness in the first place. It sucks that he was just another lemming. And the text message thing.... aw hellz no.