It’s early yet, but Nanette Burstein’s ultra-slick “American Teen” just may win the “Frat House” award this year for a documentary so highly worked, so packed with high dramatic incidents among classic character types that a skeptical viewer may well wonder just how freely direction and editing sculpted real life into something more like … well, “The Real World.” Undeniably entertaining for its zippy presentation, not to mention the rooting/hissing value assigned various principals, pic is a broadcast natural. And despite credibility issues, boisterous aud response at Sundance and apparent distrib bidding frenzy should lead to theatrical exposure.
Feature charts a year in the lives of four high school seniors in primarily white, middle-class Warsaw, Ind. — albeit with all the boring and routine parts mysteriously absent from edited-within-an-inch-of-its-life package.
Hannah proudly considers herself (along with a sexually ambiguous best male friend) an arty, unconventional misfit amid the “total caste system” of their vanilla environ.
She’s glad to be well off the social radar of Megan, an overachieving rich girl whom Hannah (not alone) considers “the biggest bitch” in school. On the other hand, Colin manages to be a nice guy despite his star status on Warsaw High’s highly rated basketball team.
Falling outside all social orbits is temporarily acne-plagued Jake, a self-described “marching band supergeek” who’s got no friends, no girlfriend and subzero self-confidence.
While anxiously considering their post-high school options, subjects each undergo crises. Most dramatic is Megan’s complete meltdown after a boyfriend of two years dumps her. Fearful of having inherited her mother’s manic depression, she sinks into such a funk that she risks flunking out.
Later she finds an unlikely new beau in sweet-natured jock Mitch, who finds her “refreshing.” But his high-caste circle predicts it won’t last — and will likely ensure it doesn’t.
Speaking of Megan, she exhibits some inexcusably childish and vindictive behavior toward others — though admittedly she’s under considerable family pressure to get accepted to Notre Dame. We also learn late about a recent tragedy that may well explain what mom calls her inner rage.
Colin, too, is under a lot of stress: Everyone expects him to excel on the court, with Elvis impersonator dad constantly reminding him that his college chances depend on getting a sports scholarship. Meanwhile, self-defeating Jake is humiliated by his first g.f., though better luck lies ahead.
This is all involving stuff, but it plays like a highlight reel in which melodrama often seems artificially heightened. When the camera catches two future sweethearts making eyes at each other in a crowded room, before they’ve even met, “American Teen” feels suspiciously rigged.
Somewhere between manipulative and condescending is the MTV-like use of pop tunes to underline obvious emotional notes. Ditto elaborate animated sequences that caricature the subjects’ dreams and fears — Brothers Quay-like grunge imagery interprets Hannah’s depression, sword-and-sorcery cliches mock Jake’s nerd fantasy life, etc. In Burstein’s acclaimed prior nonfiction feature, “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and Oscar-nommed “On the Ropes,” the style suited the content. Here, style seems to be dictating content.
Package is glossy to a fault. But one thing missing is any sense that “American Teen” has something specific to say about teenagers now. There’s nothing about the cliquishness, personal problems, alcohol usage and apparent sexual activity here that’s any different from the Middle American teen experience a generation or more ago.