' Cinema Romantico: American Teen

Monday, August 18, 2008

American Teen

Director/producer Nanette Burstein took her cameras into the high school of Warsaw, Indiana and found four teenagers to follow over the course their senior year and they are people with whom you may be familiar. The popular bitch. The jock who dreams of a basketball scholarship. The artsy outcast. The socially awkward band geek. Ah, but since this is a real life documentary and not "The Breakfast Club" everything is more powerful. Right? Right?

The popular bitch (let's call her Megan) dreams of attending Notre Dame. Or wait, is it really her father's dream? Her best friend, a male, starts seeing another one of her friends, angering her, and thus she gets revenge in about the harshest way possible. The jock (let's call him Colin) is told by his father (an Elvis impersonator) that the family doesn't have money for college and so he needs to impress the college recruiters who routinely come around to the basketball games which seems to make Colin press a bit too much. The artsy outcast (let's call her Hannah) has her heart broken at the outset by her boyfriend and so she stops coming to school, only to make a painful, difficult return, and start dating, of all people, another jock named Mitch. The socially awkward band geek (let's call him Jake) starts dating another girl in band but doesn't seem to know what to do in a relationship and so spends most of his time carrying out relationship fantasies through the use of his video games.

There have been inevitable rumors that some of the scenes were staged. Were they? I don't know. All I know is that if they were, the film doesn't do much of a job at staging fake drama. The film feels as if it's merely scratching at the surface.

Colin seems like a nice, good-hearted kid but, honestly, if you desire a peek into the struggles of high school athletics just rent "Hoop Dreams".

Megan seems to have some psychological heft (unless she's just trying her damndest to be what's-their-name's from "The Hills", which might be another possibility) to her story. I sensed a lot more push & pull between her and her father regarding the Notre Dame issue than we see. Why is she so self-destructive? What becomes of the strained relationship with her and her best friend? And most especially late in the movie a family tragedy is referenced that seems to have bearing on everything but the effect it had on her is never fully explored.

Jake, forever desperate to have a girlfriend and unable to get or maintain one, suddenly at the end finds a girl named Lesley whom he met at his brother's wedding flying all the way out from San Diego to attend prom with him. For a moment it seems we have a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (note: The Manic Pixie Dream Girl was a recent topic of discussion on The AV Club) come to life! I was sitting in my seat already plotting how I could compose a scathing diatribe about how The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is real and then....as soon as she arrives, she vanishes. The movie forgets about her, save for a tiny passage at the end. And if this tiny passage is true, how the hell did they get there? What happened inbetween?

Hannah (saddled with a mother who, I swear, is essentially Angela Lansbury from "The Manchurian Candidate" come to life) has the relationship with Mitch that might very well be the core of the film had they dug deeper. Two people from different cliques and, as we all know, high school is all about the cliques. You may say it's not, but you know it is, and then you start dating someone another clique and you may say it doesn't matter, but you know it does, and, sure enough, it turns out that it does. Mitch would have been a more interesting choice for a key character, I think, than Colin, not necessarily because he's more interesting in real life but because his plight seemed better suited to the film's aim.

Apparently, there was over 1,000 hours of footage and that leaves one to assume there must be some spectacular footage on the cutting room floor. Did Burstein have an agreement (verbal, non-verbal?) with subjects to not include certain items? Did her subjects see an initial cut and request scenes they didn't like be removed? Did Burstein become too close with her subjects and decide to refrain from serving up moments that may have been too raw? Did the editor simply have no idea what he or she was doing?

In another coming-of-age film, Cameron Crowe's miraculous "Almost Famous", the young protagonist William Miller, an aspiring writer, is advised by his sometimes-mentor, real-life rock writer Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), that a true journalist had to be "honest and unmerciful" toward his or her subject. Well, if Burstein was being honest, I get the distinct feeling she was not being unmerciful.

1 comment:

daryl said...

But Nick, this is cutting edge. It's what happens when people stop being polite, and start being real. Everything's about to change, man....