Burstein’s “American Teen” is a sensational, genuine documentary

PG-13, 101 minutes, Paramount Vantage

The best thing that can be said about Nanette Burstein’s new documentary, American Teen, is that it is stays completely focused on making sure all types of the high school student is given examination. That is certainly the biggest compliment on a list that is full of good compliments that can be paid to this entertaining, accessible, and easy to relate with film. Burstein decided to make Warsaw, Indiana the setting for the entire senior year of four students on different ends of the social galaxy, and although I’m sure it added some extra incentive for my liking of the film because I live rather closely to this area, I think that anyone who has been to high school (especially over the last twenty years) will find many things to relate to here.

From the opening moments, the filmmakers do a terrific job of quickly introducing all of the main subjects and grabbing our interest. We see sort of our main “character”, Hannah, an outspoken artist who constantly dreams of leaving Indiana immediately after high school. There is also Colin, the star basketball player who is king of popularity not only in the school but in the community, and all because of the fact that he is responsible for making the team successful. Jake is the introvert who plays video games more often than even the normal teenager, all while struggling to find out why he is socially murdered. Then we are introduced to Megan, the girl who has it all and gets whatever she wants, “The Princess”. Burstein does a fantastic job letting us first get acquainted with these people by not immediately diving into their lives, but instead letting us become familiar with the surroundings and the lifestyles and the expectations. It’s all drawn from what is obviously thousands of hours of video footage that was literally filmed throughout a ten month span that would exist inside an entire high school year, and it’s edited together in fitting, entertaining fashion. As the film gets deeper inside the minds and feelings and hidden emotions that all of these people share, even if they are entirely different at the surface, it became something more than just a simple documentary about high school seniors, at least for me it did. I was taken back to the decisions that I made and didn’t make at that defining point in my life, hoping the best for these people and hanging on every little thing that happened like it pertained to me…and in a way it sort of does. I consider this to be a universal story that can be shared with all different types of people, and for generations to come, and along with some new interesting documentaries that have been released in the last couple of years, it is making the genre more easy to enjoy and seek out, even for the easily bored audience member.

I had these feelings that I hadn’t thought about since I was in high school when I was watching this film, the kind where I was always wondering how amazing it would be to capture everything that happened in those defining, priceless times in a life on film…and here they have made that movie. I’m sure I share the feeling of imagining a film that would capture things beyond the plastic surface that high school is mostly credited with, one that actually just understood the struggles of being a person with too much on their mind, not being able to put it all together in favor of confusion. This film is sort of like a blessing to all of the people who wanted this but never got it from their time in high school, for the people who only have bits and pieces in memory about it, and even for those who mostly hated everything about it – this film can remind you that were indeed some things that you will want back. I was affected by this film as I was watching, and even more as its credits rolled and the students’ lives were updated some two years later. I cared for these people and appreciated the film so much that I sort of realized just how much I loved certain aspects of that time in my life as well. This is going to be that will gather a big audience as time goes by.

* * * 1/2


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