American Teen

Directed by Nanette Burnstein


[Trailer here]

It’s uncanny just how much the events that happen at the real life high school in Warsaw, Indiana in American Teen conform to the story elements of The Breakfast Club. American Teen has very obviously marketed itself as a documentary version of The Breakfast Club but I’m not sure that “documentary” is the best word to describe this film. “Documentary” suggests a film that is attempting to merely represent reality. This film is much more informed by The Hills. I say this because both The Hills and American Teen are not about realism but about recreating the teen genre using real life to inject an uber-voyeuristic element. Both are constructed and edited like soap operas and while this might seem like a derogatory comment it was probably an incredibly difficult feat.

The film opens with a teenage girl’s voiceover who introduces the small town and high school where the film is set. As Black Kids start playing on the soundtrack, we’re treated to a montage of the particular teenagers we’ll follow through the movie. Each teenager was chosen because they fit a particular archetype. There’s a jock facing pressure from his dad to win, a queen bee who excels in casual cruelty, a nerd who pines for a relationship and a misfit Juno-like character. Over the course of the film people will break up, a prom will come and go, someone will experience a night in Tijuana, a topless photo will circulate around the school, and the most popular guy in school will go out with the arty loner girl.

First reason to like this film: If you are into teen films, then this is a most excellent example of the genre. Don’t let the fact that this is a documentary lead you to believe that this is less entertaining than Mean Girls.

Second reason to like this film: It is particularly insightful as to teenagers’ relationship with media. I suspect that some audience members will get frustrated that American Teen seems at times inauthentic because it appears the teenagers are performing to create drama for the camera. This is probably true, but the point I want to make is that the reality is that most teenagers are by nature inauthentic. They are desperate to project a particular image of themselves so that they fit a clique even if that clique only exists in teen films.

This is a funny and touching film but it’s sometimes difficult to watch in a similar way that it’s sometimes difficult to look at photos of yourself as a teenager. The desperation and pretentiousness of these teenagers is often embarassing but it’s also in its own way quite beautiful.

If there’s a major detraction in the film, it’s the way to cool for it’s own good soundtrack that plays out over the closing credits. MGMT – great band, but their presence here reeks of an Apple commercial for some reason.


The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)


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