The Kids Stay in the Picture 

American Teen turns the camera on a group of high school seniors.

"It wasn't you. It was how they put it together."

— Hannah Bailey, American Teen

High school senior Hannah Bailey — one of the protagonists of the documentary American Teen —  is talking to her boyfriend Mitch about a video segment on their school's morning announcements, where Mitch come across as arrogant. But she might as well be commenting on the film they're both in, an intimate portrait of a year in the life of a handful of teens that poses plenty of questions about what "real" means anymore.

This Sundance Film Festival hit from documentarian Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) focuses on four seniors at the only high school in small-town Warsaw, Indiana: Megan — blond, tan, and wealthy by town standards — is the school queen bee. Colin — the best player on the school's basketball team — is the jock. Jake is the shy, acne-riddled "band geek." ("I do love the ladies, but the ladies do not love me," he says.) And then there's Hannah, who is described by a litany of classmate responses: "alternative," "artistic," "rebel," "strange." (Though one male classmate offers a description that immediately marks him as the best person in the film: "She's got heart.")

Each teen is driven by a clear, at least somewhat attainable, post-high-school goal: Megan wants to live up to family pressure and get into Notre Dame. Colin wants to earn a basketball scholarship as the only way to afford college. Jake wants to have a girlfriend and a normal life. And Hannah wants to go to college in California and make movies.

But the roles (along with second-tier subject Mitch as school heartthrob) linger, underscored by a film poster that cagily apes the iconography of John Hughes' teen-flick classic The Breakfast Club. But one of American Teen's biggest questions is how much the film (and the kids) are trying to expose the limitations of these cultural types and how much the film (and, again, the kids) are trying to replicate them.

American Teen is a highly engaging, relatable film, but it's impossible not to wonder how real it really is, both in terms of filmmaking and "performance."

Are moments re-created? One of the most dramatic scenes of the film is Hannah crying on the street after her boyfriend (not Mitch) has broken up with her immediately after having sex. The camera also shows another male friend at another location receiving her tearful phone call. Capturing all of this on camera seems entirely too fortuitous, as does the capturing of meaningful text messages as they're being written.

In terms of performance, Hannah's mid-film, Pretty in Pink-style romance with Mitch also feels sketchy. Is this real or just a way for this boy, previously a non-factor in the film, to worm his way into a "starring" role?

Or is there a difference anymore? Quizzed by Megan about dating outside his circle, Mitch says of Hannah, "I feel like I can be myself around her. I can be nerdy." It's straight from a John Hughes flick, but have Hughes flicks now taught multiple generations how to act like teenagers? It's a post-modern given that the camera changes what (or, more explicitly, who) it films. But for a post-Real World, YouTube generation, is it possible to film teens not performing?

American Teen

Opening Friday, August 15th

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