American Teen


  • Written and directed by Nanette Burstein

I can’t think of another documentary that felt so much like narrative fiction. American Teen follows four kids in their last year in a Warsaw, Indiana high school. They apply for college, they get drunk, they fall in and out of love. In other words, they do what everyone else does in that last scary year before everything changes.

But they also have humbling experiences, learn valuable lessons, and begin to believe in themselves. In other words, they do what everyone else does in a Hollywood movie. This is real life with convenient story arcs.

American Teen‘s four “stars” all appear at first glance to be stereotypes, but as the movie progresses, we get to know them as real people. There’s rich, beautiful, and popular Megan, star jock Colin, pimply and awkward band geek Jake, and artistic rebel Hannah (easily the most likeable one of the lot). We get to know other kids, as well. Another jock, Mitch, seems to have won last-minute star status when he started dating Hannah.

Much of what they go through breaks your heart. Hannah’s mother, trying to stop her daughter’s plans to move to San Francisco, tells her she isn’t special. Colin’s Elvis impersonator dad warns him that if he doesn’t get a basketball scholarship, he’ll have to join the army. One friend of Megan’s photographs herself topless and emails it to her boyfriend, with embarrassing results.

American Teen falls into a documentary tradition called cinéma vérité, where the camera records actual events without–so the theory goes– effecting them. Of course, it’s impossible to have a camera crew follow you everywhere and not effect your life. And when a cinéma vérité documentary is as polished as American Teen, you have to assume that the interference was considerable.

For instance, many dialog scenes are covered from multiple setups, cutting back and forth between close-ups of the people involved. One person recording real life with a video camera isn’t going to get that. One character commits a relatively serious crime on screen, even looking into and talking to the camera as she does it. A scene of a couple in a restaurant includes a quick shot of their legs beneath the table. Text messages seem remarkably well-spelled.

And the story arcs, especially Colin’s, seem incredibly well-structured. Maybe Burstein followed lots of kids, then selected these four for the best story lines. Maybe she’s just an incredibly talented editor who can put real-life events into a Hollywood-style structure (no maybe there, actually; the movie proves she’s a talented editor). Or maybe she just got lucky.

Whatever your concerns of reality and documentaries, however, American Teen offers an insightful and entertaining view of high school society in the early 21st century.