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American Teen (2008)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 12/21/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Audio: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 12/22/2008

When a filmmaker creates a fiction film, most of the elements are under their control. They can control the story, the actors, the sets, the locations, the look of the film, the editing, and the music (amongst other things). For a documentary filmmaker, all that they can control is the editing and their choice of subject matter. Everything else is left to chance. Of course, for this discussion, we must differentiate between a documentary and a retrospective. A documentary chooses an event or person and then "documents" what happens next (For example, Paradise Lost). A retrospective examines something which has already happened, like the work of Ken Burns. In a documentary, even if the director has chosen what seems like a great subject, the reality of the story could be lackluster or may not even materialize at all.

Director Nanette Burnstein, who made a name for herself with the 2002 Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, decided that she wanted to document the everyday life of high school students in America. She traveled to Warsaw, Indiana, and spent a year there capturing the footage which makes up her latest documentary, American Teen.

The movie introduces us to five main characters (there are many peripheral characters) who represent major high-school stereotypes. Megan is the "Homecoming Queen". She comes from an affluent family (we never learn where her parents got their money) and she feels that she can do whatever she wants. She's always surrounded by friends, and despite the fact that we never see her with a boyfriend, she gets very jealous when her male friends date other girls. Her goal is to attend Notre Dame. Hannah is the "rebel". She loves movies and music, and she plays in a band. She feels that she doesn't fit in at all in Warsaw and her goal is to go to film school in San Francisco. Jake is the "geek". He plays in the marching band and he loves The Legend of Zelda video games. Jake has notable acne and he is very socially awkward. He doesn't have many friends, but he longs to have a girlfriend. Colin is the "jock". He's the star of the basketball team and he dreams of getting a scholarship to play basketball in college. Colin's friend and teammate Mitch is the "heartthrob". He seems like a genuinely nice person and all of the girls love him...which makes his choice of girlfriend all the more surprising.

The movie introduces us to these characters and their friends and follows them throughout the year. We witness some major school events, such as basketball games (as this is an integral part of Colin's story), the prom and a talent show, but for the most part, the piece showcases the kids in their everyday lives, showing what they do with their families and friends. We see them struggle with relationships and their wants for the future. While American Teen focuses primarily on the kids, we do hear from their parents at times.

American Teen is a well-made documentary, as Burnstein does a good job with the monumental task of addressing the stories of these teenagers in a film which runs less than two hours. Yes, there are plenty of times when we are left wanting to know more about certain situations, but the film manages to move from character to character very well, allowing us to spend a good amount of time with each of them. Sure, Burnstein could be knocked for choosing these stereotype characters, but let's face it, if she had simply chosen five people at random, they would have fallen into some sort of clique or category. The bottom line here is that the activities portrayed showcase a very common high-school experience. (As an aside, I had a little acne in high school, who didn't, but in what kind of high-stress-situation at a KFC are these kids involved?!)

My problem with American Teen is that it's a bit too good. I'm not making any accusations here, but as the film goes on, it begins to lose its realistic feel. At the outset, situations and ideas are introduced, and by the end, things are wrapped up a bit too nicely. It reached a point where I began to question if I was really watching a documentary or simply a verite, but scripted movie. The odds of one or two storylines ending in the way that these did are probably manageable, but for the entire film to conclude in the fashion that it does makes me wonder if things weren't manipulated a bit. There's also the question of the audience reaction to the film, and how genuine that will be. For example, we are supposed to hate Megan and the movie makes us hate Megan. But, is Megan really like that, or was this simply the result of the editing? Also, I realize that teenagers don't have the best judgment, but some of the things which are captured on film are very surprising, and there's one scene in particular where you have to wonder, A) would they really allow themselves to be filmed while doing that, and B) did no one in the area notice the camera crew?

As far as being watchable and entertaining, American Teen does fine. The movie does a great job of telling its stories and taking us inside the lives of these kids. But, I still can't help but wonder how true everything that we're seeing is.

American Teen gets all emotional on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.78:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. I have to assume that the movie was shot on digital video, as the clarity is quite impressive. The colors look very good, and the image is well-balanced, although there a few dark shots. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The dialogue is always clear and audible. Some scenes, such as the basketball games, or crowded hallways, offer nice stereo effects. However, there is very little here in the way of surround effects, and I don't think that the subwoofer ever got involved.

The American Teen DVD contains a few extras. "Pop Quiz: Cast Interviews" (4 minutes) has the five main participants answering questions about how they got invovled in the project, how it was accepted and the relationships amongst the group. The surprising thing is that Hannah doesn't say much. The DVD contains six DELETED SCENES which run about 9 minutes. These seem to be made up entirely of awkward scenes, including one where a male and female character watch porn together. That made me uncomfortable. There's more footage of the time surrounding the prom. "Hannah Blogs" contains ten entries and runs about 19 minutes. These are essentially long interviews with Hannah where she's allowed to ramble on various topics, such as her dog, boys, and high school life. Of course, when she claimed that Ron Weasley was beautiful she lost all credibility. "Character Trailers" (5 minutes) offers five trailers for the movie, each featuring a different character.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long