American Teen (review)

These Kids Today…

Does life change after high school, or is it just more of the same old shit? Seems to me it must be a little bit of both, because as I sat in the dark watching American Teen, the intimate and incisive new documentary about senior year for five high-schoolers, I simultaneously thought, Thank God I’m not a teenager anymore, and Wow, we never really grow up, do we?
Documentarian Nanette Burstein spent an entire school year at the only high school in tiny Warsaw, Indiana — population: 12,000 — where there is no escape from the pressure cooker of adolescence or from conservative small-town conformity. Using minimal crews with minimal equipment — often just herself with a small camera — Burstein followed around five teens from across the spectrum of American youth: the all-star jock, the band geek, the arty rebel, the prom queen, the heartthrob. She claims to have become their friend, never an authority figure in their lives, and that must be true, because some of the things the kids do on camera are the kinds of things they’d never, ever do if they thought their parents were watching, and some of the things they say on camera are the kinds of things they’d never, ever say to a parents’ face.

And that’s why adults — and particularly parents — will, I suspect, get more out of American Teen than kids themselves will: it’s a peek into the horrors of adolescence that most of us have tried to forget, and shouldn’t, not if we’re raising kids ourselves. (I’m not, though I have a young teenager friend I often try to counsel, and the next time I find myself telling her that I remember how hard it is to be a teenager, I’ll have to bite my tongue, because now I’m not sure I really do.) Some of the nonsense — the “total caste system” of school, the meanspiritedness of some people, the peer pressure — to some degrees never goes away, being, alas, qualities inherently human, not merely inherently adolescent, and those aspects of high-school life will have many adults groaning in recognition… perhaps particularly those who work in corporate environments, which so often end up aping the structure and environment of high school.

It’s the emotionalism that, I think, many adults will have forgotten, the raging hormones that blow up absolutely every event into a tragedy — or a triumph, but more often a tragedy — of epic proportions. The wild ups and downs of adolescence really are wilder than we grownups remember, which Burstein captures with such desperate honesty that it’s hard to watch at moments. Every romantic breakup is a disaster (though one of Burstein’s subjects here is suffering from a more clinical kind of depression, which makes you ache for her even more, to see how badly she is derailed by heartbreak), if you’re lucky enough to find romance in the first place — if you aren’t, well, that’s a whole other kind of tragedy. Entire futures appear to weigh on whether that college acceptance comes through, whether that scholarship is offered, whether parents are able to accept that carefully thought through decision about whether life after high school should include college at all.

“My life sucks right now,” one of the kids laments, trying to explain how deeply in pain he is all the time, “but what if it’s even worse after high school.” Most adults will, I suspect, already know that it all gets at least a little better, once the teen years are behind us. A reminder that we once felt the same way — and expressed in such a way that a kid will never say directly to an adult, because it leaves you too raw and exposed — is a Good Thing.

Raw and exposed: that’s American Teen as a package, and it comes at you in more ways than you’d expect. Burstein uses clever and stylized animation sequences to illustrate the hopes and fears of her subjects, dreamscapes that capture the kids’ souls in a way that is breathtaking, and perhaps do more to slam us adults back into adolescence than any other facet of the film. All I know is this: Whenever I was tempted to scoff, from my 20-years-past-high-school perspective, at some of these kids as spoiled brats or clueless children, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.

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