04 August 2008

Mooney at the Movies: American Teen

Megan plots her revenge. (Paramount Vantage)

American Teen (A-)

Directed by Nanette Burstein

Reality TV is everywhere. Networks have crammed their schedules with it. MTV has replaced nearly everything music-related with it. There's even a whole cable channel devoted to it.

American Teen has nothing to do with any of it. This is the actual reality, even if some of it seems a bit forced or recreated.

Basically, pop documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein (who won the directing award at Sundance this year) followed four seniors and their friends around for a year in Warsaw, Indiana, as they negotiate the vast social battlefield that is high school, complete with failed relationships, public disgrace, and the inscrutable pressure of getting into college.

The cast of characters is here: the rich drama queen, the superstar athlete, the cute artsy hipster girl, the uber band nerd, and more. The clich├ęs are all present and accounted for, but the facades drop quickly and we begin to understand why they viciously retaliate, crack under pressure, retreat after a bad break-up, and hide from love, respectively.

Through these students, we get to experience the joy, pain, and utter frustration of high school all over again. While that may seem like a bad trip, it's through Burstein's lens that we get to remember how naive, how selfish, how desperate we were when we were in high school. It's really quite an experience, especially to those who see one documentary a year tops.

This is not the film that will win the Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars next year (even though it's deserving). There's nothing here that's uncovering some shocking truth about Iraq or further investigation into the Holocaust. It's simply entertaining and gripping and how much was staged or simply caught off hand is simply not worth the debate when a film is this compelling.

American Teen is poised to become a word-of-mouth hit, but it's still got a tough road to mainstream success. It may not be the indie gem everyone will love, but it will be a diamond in the rough to its rewarded viewers.

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