Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen” documentary has hit the big screen with a limited release in major American cities. The film purports to be a realistic view of American adolescence, as Burstein went to Warsaw, Indiana in order to follow five teenagers through their senior year in high school. Parents who see the film will wonder if the documentary is as realistic as Burstein claims—but they will worry that it is true.
“American Teen” won the Best Directing award for Burstein at the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary was enthusiastically received. The big question now is whether the public will pay theater prices to see a film about what goes on at the local high school. Time will tell. In the meantime, the film is attracting controversy.
Burstein focuses on five high school seniors and, even as she insists that she did not play into stereotypes, the film’s Web site advertises the central characters as “the jock,” “the geek,” “the rebel,” “the princess,” and “the heartthrob.” Forgive me, but those seem to be the most stereotypical stereotypes of American adolescence.
The documentary is situated in rural America. Warsaw, Indiana is just over a hundred miles outside of Chicago, which means that the town is hardly isolated. Nevertheless, the social context of the Warsaw Community High school seems realistic and recognizable—but not at all reassuring.
Adolescent angst is the standard fare of coming-of-age stories and a staple of literature, drama, and film. From “Romeo and Juliet” and “Catcher in the Rye” to “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Rumspringa” and “Lord of the Flies,” the insecurities, brutalities, and extremes of adolescent life have been on full display. Over the past several decades, adolescent psychologists have supplied the concept of the identity crisis as the therapeutic framework for expecting teenagers to misbehave. “American Teen” follows in this tradition. The general idea is that adolescent Sturm und Drang is just to be expected. Parents and other adults are to just “deal with it” and remember their own adolescent struggles.
The kids in “American Teen” do not come off well. Some, such as Megan (“the Princess”), are absolutely unlikeable. She is the rich kid of privilege who is spoiled, narcissistic and ruthless. Once her parents are introduced, all is explained. When she is caught vandalizing a boy’s home and is found guilty of sexual harassment her biggest worry is that she will not get into Notre Dame (she does). She explains that she has forgiven herself and her father suggests that her real problem was being stupid enough to get caught. Both belong on “Oprah.”