dividing line between serious documentaries and
reality television gets more and more blurred as the trend becomes more
ubiquitous in our society.
has the pedigree of a serious documentary – it is directed by Nanette
Burnstein, who helmed the fascinating look at producer Robert Evans, The
Kid Stays in the Picture – and yet it has picked up some bad habits from
There is a big difference between the real world and The Real World,
and American Teen, while trying to give us a glimpse into the lives
of a bunch of “real” teens in America in the 00s, stacks the deck too much.
There are quite a few situations which feel like they were staged. The
banter seems a little too polished. The triumphant highs and tragic lows
all seem to be well-lit and caught just a hair too handily.
year I interviewed famed director Michael Apted, who is the father of this
brand of filmmaking with the acclaimed Up! series of movies, which
followed the lives of a group of British schoolchildren from seven years old
and revisited their lives every seven years. (They were 49 in the most
recent installment.) Apted, who acknowledges he is no fan of reality
television, had this perceptive distinction between documentary and reality
an idea, reality tends to put people in contrived or unusual circumstances
and see how they respond,” Apted said. “A documentary attempts to catch
life as it is. To show a reality rather than show how people react in alien
circumstances. Which can be very interesting, but I think there is a
difference. Reality lends itself to more exploitation really than a
seems to be coming down somewhere in the middle. It really is trying to
capture the kids of an Indiana High School in their world, and yet it is
manipulating that world for its own merits. These kids are being exploited
slightly, though not necessarily in a bad way. The sincerity of American
Teen seems to be a lot closer to the Oprah level than Big
Brother or The Real Cancun. I do believe that Burnstein cares
for these kids and wants desperately to impart their stories, though I do
also wonder if she didn’t somewhat impose her own beliefs and preconceptions
of this may even be impossible to avoid. Despite the fact that Burnstein
has captured a mostly clever and intriguing cross-section of a modern high
school, too often you feel that they are performing for the cameras rather
than living their lives. Of course, a certain amount of that is inevitable
– no one, no matter how genuine, will totally be themselves while on
camera. Still, sometimes you feel that the director is caressing the
action, when it is supposed to be her job to be detachedly and unobtrusively
the poster captures our students in a self-conscious tribute to beloved 80s
high school drama The Breakfast Club. In many ways, the two films
are similar – they divide their characters into broad social castes such
as jocks, nerds, popular kids, arty kids, weird kids and stoners. However,
The Breakfast Club was a work of fiction with its own plot points and
agendas. American Teen is not supposed to. By using these kids in
this iconic image, it is coloring how we react to the kids and what we will
expect from them.
too bad, because the whole thing is about these five kids chafing against
the expectations placed upon them by their small town life.
obvious breakout character, or at least as the film is concerned, is
Hannah. Hannah is arty (she wants to move to California and work in
movies!), individual (she says she is a liberal in white-bread Indiana),
quirky (she dresses vaguely goth and lives in an old Moody Blues t-shirt)
and sensitive (after breaking up with her boyfriend after their first sexual
experience, she is unable to go back to school for over two weeks.) Hannah
is a charming, sweet, funny girl and does make an interesting
documentary subject – though honestly she is not nearly as quirky or arty as
the filmmakers like to suggest. Maybe for small town Indiana, but to a city
audience she just seems like a nice, if a little confused, teenaged girl.
other end of the spectrum is Megan, the beautiful, rich queen bee. She is a
complete horror – mean, spiteful, rude, stuck-up and frankly a total bitch.
Megan obviously has a bit of a crush on her long-time best friend Geoff,
however she won’t admit to it or act on it. Instead, she makes the lives of
everyone else in his circle miserable – even forwarding a topless photo of
one of her best friends to the entire student body and vandalizing a local
boy’s home. Then, she uses the suicide of her older sister as a glib excuse
for her poor actions.
the girls, in the case of the boys, the loser is much more interesting than
the supposedly together one. Colin is the local basketball star. His
father was also a local star, and now pushes his son to either get a
basketball scholarship or join the military or take over dad’s gig as an
Elvis impersonator (apparently the only quirky
part of this square kid's life). Honestly, Colin doesn’t seem to be
that great a player, seems to have no personal life other than joking
with the guys on the team and seems to only be interested in getting a
only interest in Jake’s life, on the other hand, is finding a girlfriend.
This isn’t exactly the simplest thing because he is a band geek. He also
has no self-confidence and absolutely no game. After laying his head on a
table, he actually points out to the girl he is with that he has gotten the
table oily with his acne. As you might imagine, this did not go over very
well. Jake is a self-confessed loser (in fact, he
points it out so often that it would tend to scare most girls away)
and one animated fantasy sequence in which Jake uses the video game The
Legend of Zelda to describe how he would vanquish a competitor for a
teen girl's attention skirts just a little too close to Columbine territory
for comfort. Still despite all he has
stacked against him (and perhaps because he is being followed around by a
camera crew) Jake
actually does have a couple of cute-if-short-lived relationships with girls
who probably could do much better than him.
the end, American Teen is a rather old-fashioned film, looking at
basically good and basically very normal kids who live pretty average high
school lives. Oh, sure, there are a few nods at the new millennium (a guy
breaks up with Hannah by text message!), but otherwise this could be
anytime and anyplace in the world. I respected and enjoyed American
Teen, but I have to think that it could have been so much more cutting
edge if it took more chances and let the kids of the high school really,
really be themselves.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: December 19, 2008.