I always just assume, as I’m dragging my tired ass out of bed, into the shower, out the door, into the subway and up the 22 flights of stairs to my tiny box my boss calls a cubicle that any teenager I pass has no clue about anything at all. I know I’m selling them short, but I always see them just standing there, talking about nothing at all and making sure everyone around them can hear what they have to say. They’re texting each other and shoving each other and making out obnoxiously up against me on the bus. They annoy me, but this is primarily because I wish I had it as easy as they do. The irony is that they do have it so easy, but they think they’re going through the hardest part of their lives, that once they get out of high school, everything will work out in their favour. There’s a reason people are always urging young people not to grow up too soon, y’know.
I expected terror. I expected anxiety. I didn’t expect these things from the kids in Nanette Burstein’s documentary “American Teen”, but rather from myself while having to sit through an in-depth exploration of what it means to be a teenager in Middle America these days. I got neither. Instead, I felt sympathy, connection and nostalgia. The promotional material for this Sundance winner for Best Direction in a Documentary suggests that the five teenagers who make up the main subjects follow in the stereotypical footsteps of “The Breakfast Club”. There’s Hannah, the rebel (who is really more of an artist than a rebel); Colin, the jock (who defies all preconceived notions of what it means to be a jock); Megan, the princess (who delights in drama and the suffering of others); Jake, the geek (who naturally plays video games and is in the school band); and Mitch, the heartthrob (who barely leaves an impression on the viewer like the others). The reality is that “American Teen” is actually a much more tender and understanding exploration of the insecurities that lie behind the images. All five of these kids turned into characters grow more into themselves before our eyes.
Burstein followed these five kids and a good number of their friends for the entire 2006 scholastic year at Warsaw Community High School. They had troubles with their parents, with their friends, with where they would go to college and with what the prom theme would be, to name but a few of the daily dramas in their lives. As one would expect from a teenager, they believe the world revolves around them and that their problems are monumental in comparison with anyone else’s. What struck me most though is that their problems are not really that different than my problems or those of my friends. Now I haven’t been a teenager for many a year but I still struggle with finding a partner, with finding myself. I still wonder where my life will lead, where I fit in. With responsibilities like bills, rent, a job, staying fit and keeping up with Jones’, I don’t have time to let the drama consume me. These five and the millions of others just like them define themselves by their dramas as they don’t know the fragility of life yet. Still, their subtle self-questioning, their longing to belong and their hope for their futures gives me a whole other kind of hope for the future of humanity.
“American Teen” is an enjoyable, refreshing documentary that will inevitably play differently to all who see it, as everyone had a different adolescent experience. Some have moved on while others still hear the echoes of torment or thrill in their minds. I know I was just as lost as they were at their age but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t as loud or vindictive – and, yes, I am aware of how simply making this statement ages me more than is necessary. Thanks to Burstein’s finely balanced exposition though, when I see a bunch of kids loitering outside my local corner store, I won’t focus solely on the loudness with which they ponder which Jonas brother is the hottest, but rather remember the confusion that lives inside them and still lives somewhere within me.
Review by Joseph Bélanger