With a Hall Pass in Hand: American Teen

American Teen was immediately criticized as it began generating attention at Sundance in 2008. The original promotional material featured the five teenagers at the heart of Nanette Burstein’s documentary in poses and costume nearly identical to those in the Breakfast Club. The previews even pre-defined their roles: The Geek, The Princess, The Jock, The Hearthrob and The Rebel, arousing suspicions that this reduced these people’s stories to palatable, packaged frames, symbolic of a disingenuous adult view of teenage life.

Generally, film-goers tend to hold documentarians to a level of scrutiny that assumes them to be objective observers of their subject. This is not a pure documentary in that sense, and in fact it might be better described as a pop documentary. The filmmaker’s placement does shape environment, and in all stages of production, there are deliberate choices of what to focus on. And for Burstein, it is the concept of the modern American teenager.

Early on, there were criticisms about lacking authenticity in a different regard. Namely, the noticeable lack of variety in the town’s residents, making a film who’s sociological importance could only be generalized to middle-class white American suburbia. In American Teen, there is only one non-white high school school student featured. And every other seemingly “taboo” subject from homosexuality to promiscuous sex to divorce is muted. The sprinkling of teenage drama in the briskly edited montage that made up the trailers suggested a “documentary” that sanitized taboo realities, only to fill the gap with sexier sensationalism.

These are valid critiques of flaws that are present, but not to any degree that should make the film dismissive in what it shows. Overall, American Teen, released to DVD in December 2008, provides genuine insight as it highlights five students in their senior year of high school in the small, Midwestern suburb of Warsaw, Indiana.

Among them is Colin, “The Jock,” a varsity basketball player who, amidst a slumping season for the team, is desperate for an athletic scholarship to pay for college. His father, a former Warsaw basketball player that now seems to make an unusual living performing as an Elvis impersonator at parties in chain hotels, makes it clear to his son that, while they live “comfortably,” they can’t afford to pay for his college tuition. He unilaterally decides for his son an alternative option of military enlistment.

Meghan is “The Princess,” one of the least likable among the five teens. It’s not because she is one of the popular kids steeped in privilege (she drives a Mercedes), but because she had a reputation for her merciless vengeance against anyone who dared to steal her thunder, prompting certainty that she was in for quite the rude awakening when life continuing in those high school walls suddenly became irrelevant to those that left. However, the origins of her bitchy behavior may not be surprising, especially giving the cold relationship with her father. Engaged in the ritual obsession of college admissions like Colin, she fear being ostracized by her family if she weren’t able to make Notre Dame, where her father and siblings attended.

Jake is “The Geek.” He has a mouth full of wire, a face full of acne, and is woefully awkward. Inspired by the idealized world of video games, he constantly imagines an opportunity to reinvent himself and, throughout most of the film, strives to find a girl that can make him happy. We don’t really know much about him outside of this. He is by far the most self-conscious of the five kids, and high school for him seems like a quiet nightmare that can be traced back to being a small kid frequently ridiculed in middle school for his size. (In appearances and interviews to follow the film’s release, it’s surprising to see what a handsome transformation he’s undergone – though he is still admittedly awkward (as he says in the afterword).

But it is Hannah, the outgoing “Rebel” who is desperate to escape the confines of her sleepy hometown where she lives with her grandmother and is occasionally visited by her father.These are the kind of kids who flee to cities they deem cultural Meccas. Hoping to go to film school and work in the industry thereafter, she applies to school in San Francisco, much to the chagrin of her parents, who think her too young and impressionable to make that kind of leap in independence so far from home. While attractive Mitch Reinholt was featured most prominently in a lot of the promotional materials after Sundance, Hannah actually turned out to be the most interesting, if not the most entertaining, as she exudes a hook of personality and emotion that we don’t see in the other characters to a similar extent. The outcome of her tale is perhaps the most alluring.

Mitch, “The Hearthrob” ironically isn’t in the film that much until the second half, probably having been necessary to be the fifth that would complete the group replica of their Breakfast Club counterparts, which becomes pretty obvious when, other than being linked to Colin as a basketball teammate and romantically linked to Hannah, there is little we ever learn about Mitch.

Ignore the fact that, if you’re of that age, that what you’re about to watch is a film about teenagers and remember that you too were one once. Given the extreme homogeneity of modern America, the experiences these teenagers share for that year during their lives, that critical rites of passage as they prepare to leave institutional comforts for either more institutional comfort, or something else entirely, is universal to most other American suburbs, and for the last couple of decades. Dealing with relationships, authority, idealism, escapism, popularity and so forth certainly isn’t anything new.

Moreover, these five kids may assume themselves to be alone in their struggles, but if The Breakfast Club (a title which will undoubtedly always be invoked in comparison) has taught us anything, it is that this is simply not so. In particular, the most apparent common underpinning is an extreme self-consciousness. That personal worth must always be demonstrated, and that ultimate value must always be defended.Jake was the obvious example. But Mitch was another, his relationship with Hannah, who belonged to a different social faction, almost perfectly mirrored Andy and Blaine’s relationship in Pretty in Pink. Meghan’s severe attitude was traced to her need for control, her determination to uphold a carefully guarded front. Hannah was aware of her peers’ self-consciousness and professed to avoid it. And even Colin, in the attempt to become the rising basketball star, feared the possibility of failure.

The teenager is quite an interesting specimen, and American Teen dissects some of the contextual underpinnings that makes adolescence so frustrating. Adolescence is a crossroads; that transitional point between childhood (protection) and adulthood (awareness) and high school is like an incubator. Aside from its roles as an educational institution, it was designed with no rubric regarding the customs and rituals that developed within its walls. But that’s what it has become (with these things very much commercially-driven), a somewhat independent environment where social and personal and political forces really develop and play out, and often times in competition of how others rationalize and synthesize those things.

As Hannah correctly observes, “We’ve spent four years here. It’s all we know.” Maybe it’s a kind of reality on a practice-level. With a couple hundred people or so.


One Response

  1. Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

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