Directed By: Nanette Burstein
American Teen, the latest documentary from Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Pictures / On the Ropes) is equally fascinating and moving. It follows the senior year of four High School students in Warsaw, Indiana. Burstein and her crew chronicle the lives of the students closely, capturing rare moments of beauty, truth, and doubt.
Although I really liked the film, it took me a while to get into it. It starts on their first day of school, and when we’re first introduced to the main subjects, they seem cliché. You have the basketball jock (Colin Clemens), the popular girl (Megan Krizmanich), the artistic, liberal girl (Hannah Bailey), and the self-professed nerd (Jake Tusing). I’m watching a documentary about High School and they’re focusing on stereotypical teens? Great. After a while, however, I realized that there’s so much more to these people than meets the eye.
Along those lines, I was interested in Colin Clemens’ story, especially with regards to his father. His father is very up-front about the fact that he can’t afford to put Colin through college after he graduates from High School. He basically says that he has two options. The first is to get a scholarship from basketball, and the second is to join the Army. You’d expect Colin’s father to be overbearing, pushing Colin to do well in basketball, but he isn’t. I was impressed with the love he showed throughout the film. It was very uplifting and genuine.
As a documentary, it is indeed quite an impressive undertaking. I heard that they ended up filming over 1,000 hours of footage over a 10-month period of time. Nanette Burstein said in an interview that they had other subjects, but due to different problems, etc. they ended up with only four. I think it worked out well in the end. I’m not sure if I could have handled watching a documentary involving that many people. I felt like I knew each person individually by the end of the film and felt sorry to see them go.
At times it seemed like Burstein was waiting for the fantastic to occur, to be ready to capture it on film. When those moments do come, they really are awesome and penetrating. There are moments when I felt embarrassed, as if I were reading a friend’s diary or personal letter. In those moments, the façade is pulled back and you see glimpses of real people in real life situations. Those moments helped quell my questions about how aware they are of the cameras recording their every move. I’m sure some of what was on-screen was a show, but underneath it all they seem very honest and open.
The film is largely made up of filmed instances in their lives, b-roll of their surroundings, and interviews with each individual. Sometimes scenes of computer animation, which I didn’t think worked, would accompany these interviews. I thought that they successfully helped to convey visually what each person was talking about, but it really took me out of the experience of watching a film.
This film reminded me of “7-Up”, an on-going series by Michael Apted. Starting in 1964, they documented the lives of seven-year-old British students from differing backgrounds and asked them what they thought about government, their future, etc. They have continued to get together with the same subjects every seven years. The last segment, 49-Up, was release in 2005. Both “7-Up” and American Teen show us different economic perspectives and backgrounds.
American Teen is a great fly-on-the-wall experience. Looking at the different lives of these students I see parts of myself in each one of them. There’s a lot to learn from observing others; the decisions they make and the ones they don’t.
I hope Nanette Burstein takes note of Michael Apted and decides to do a follow-up to American Teen several years from now. That would be fascinating.
(American Teen will be released in theaters on July 25 in the United States)