Movie News & Reviews

'Teen' shows real kids

It's no coincidence that the poster for the new documentary "American Teen" parodies that of "The Breakfast Club."

Nanette Burstein's hugely entertaining documentary about the senior year experiences of five high school students in Warsaw, Ind., plays like a real-life version of John Hughes' 1985 Brat Pack hit. These kids represent the perennial teen "types": the queen bee, the jock, the lonely outsider, the ambitious art rebel.

The strength of "American Teen" is that beneath the clichés Burstein discovers real people -- funny, conflicted, hurting, proud and not always pleasant.

We're introduced to the school's various cliques by Hannah, who in narration informs us that she pretty much hates her world, which represents everything she's not: conservative, catty, anti-intellectual and suspicious of art.

Colin is the star of the basketball team, a good-humored kid whose father (an Elvis impersonator in his spare time) keeps reminding him that the family hasn't the money for college and that it's either an athletic scholarship or the Army.

His teammate Mitch is movie-star handsome and could have his pick of any girl.

Jake is a pimply loner, a band geek all too aware of his off-putting personality traits (an insufferable blandness, a monotone speaking voice, a general lack of social graces) but unable to do anything about them. Thankfully, he's too sweet to go ballistic à la Columbine.

And then there's blond, moneyed Megan, a classic "Heather."

This athlete and student leader is popular, pretty and pathological in her need to control others. When a good friend crosses her, Megan retaliates by e-mailing a photo of the girl topless to every student in their school. When the prom committee chooses a theme she dislikes, Megan toilet-papers the chairman's house and spray paints an epithet on his windows.

Burstein's camera observes this world with astonishing intimacy and at times offers animated sequences that represent each character's hopes and fears.

Dumped by her boyfriend, the usually ebullient Hannah sinks into a depression so profound she misses nearly a month of classes. It doesn't help that her mother is bipolar; Hannah fears she may have inherited the family curse.

Later she forms an unlikely twosome with the gorgeous Mitch, who is torn between his jock/cheerleader crowd and his growing appreciation for this offbeat, beautiful girl. A sequence in which Hannah attempts to party with the "cool" kids at Megan's house is a wincing study in discomfort.

After four years of solitude, outsider Jake finds the courage to ask out a freshman new to town. She's happy to be dating a senior ... until she recognizes that there are other guys with a lot more pizazz than poor, introverted Jake.

Cager Colin is so desperate to impress the college scouts that he becomes a classic ball hog, leading his team to a near-ruinous season.

And even the witchy Megan has a cross to bear -- the expectation of her family members, all Notre Dame grads, that she'll get into that exclusive university. There's even a last-reel revelation about a family tragedy that helps explain (if not excuse) some of Megan's reprehensible behavior.

In many ways "American Teen" plays less like a documentary than like a scripted drama -- which is a bit of a problem because you find yourself wondering how much of what we're seeing is the real deal.

How can she always be on hand for the big moments in these young lives? What are the odds that Burstein would be filming a young woman at the very moment she gets a text message from her boyfriend announcing he's breaking up with her? (In fact, Burstein has revealed that she restaged that incident for her camera.)

And why does so much of the students' narration -- sometimes even what they're saying on camera -- sound like it was written for them?

Perhaps they're performing for the camera.

This possible blurring of fact and fiction isn't enough to sink "American Teen," but it does blunt some of the pleasure.

Still, there are many times when you simply can't believe you've eavesdropped on such personal moments. The triumphs and pains of teenage life are captured here in all their marvelous, maddening complexity.