Not all American teens will see themselves reflected in American Teen, a documentary by Nanette Burstein that’s gotten flak for capturing not reality but Breakfast Club stereotypes edited to life. Burstein set up her cameras in a public high school in Warsaw, Ind., a town that represents an extraordinarily diversity-free population—as one of the students puts it, Warsaw is “mostly white, mostly Christian, red-state all the way.” It is, ironically, the kind of place where documentaries such as this one would show up only, maybe, in a Netflix envelope, not the local multiplex. Still, the Sturm und Drang of high school is pretty universal, whether you were the one dishing it out or suffering through it, and the blue-state sophisticates who are more likely to seek out this film had to come from somewhere.
Even if you didn’t fit into the John Hughes-ian types profiled and categorized here, you’ll probably empathize with at least some of the drama endured by Hannah (the rebel), Colin (the jock), Megan (the princess), Jake (the geek), and Mitch (the heartthrob) as they go through their senior year. Hannah, not so much a “rebel” as true to herself, is pretty but in a pale, non-cheerleader way, interested in pursuing a film career but more interested in just getting the hell out of Warsaw, where she says she’ll “never belong.” Colin, the school’s star athlete, is pressured by his parents to get a basketball scholarship, because his only other realistic option is the military. Megan is a queen bee, a blond and popular student-council officer with the kind of me-first aggressiveness that looks and wealth can cultivate; more bluntly, another student calls her “the biggest bitch.” Her senior-year cross is getting accepted into family alma mater Notre Dame, as well as a tragedy that not many people know about and which sometimes fuels her ’tude. Jake is skinny and acne-prone, which makes him self-conscious, shy, and a fantasy-gaming addict. Though he wryly says, “I do love the ladies, but the ladies do not love me,” he’s determined to find a girlfriend. Mitch, both a hearththrob and a jock, feels peer pressure when he falls for Hannah.
Burstein never makes her presence known during American Teen, but the film doesn’t exactly have a fly-on-the-wall perspective, either. Of course, narratives are shaped—OMG! incidents are surely restaged—and the lot of it is plenty polished. Animated sequences decorate each student’s story: Dark, serpentine corridors emerge when Hannah succumbs to a serious fit of depression and narrates how worthless she feels, while video-game characterizations surround Jake in his ideal world. You’ll also be able to predict a few developments as if they were straight out of a made-for-TV movie. (As soon as Hannah announces her love for her boyfriend, for example, and claims that she can’t imagine living without him, you know the pair will soon be toast.)
Yet the kids’ fundamental plights rarely feel scripted. All of them may have been reared in the age of The Real World and are more knowledgeable about working a camera than, say, the subjects of Seventeen, a 1983 documentary that inspired Burnstein. Yet they’re also the Facebook and YouTube generation, comfortable with exposing every aspect of their lives for public consumption, and some of the experiences documented are too raw to have been faked: Hannah, who missed weeks of school after being dumped, suffers anxiety attacks when she tries to return, sobbing and pleading with her father not to make her go. When a girl e-mails a topless photo of herself to a guy she’s interested in—who happens to be Megan’s best friend—a terrifically cruel sequence of e-mail forwards, texts, and prank calls follows. You wince both because of the girl’s bad judgment as well as the verité of her classmates’ mocking responses. Worst, at least for anyone who grew up with less than rah-rahing, wallet-opening parents, is the frustrating, air-sucking conversations Hannah, Colin, and Megan have with their folks, all of whom want to severely limit their children’s options.
You want to tell the kids that they’ll be adults soon. That they can make their own choices. That life will be OK and most likely not follow a high-school/college/perfect-career schedule. You feel the students’ relief when they graduate—and breathe easier remembering that that chapter of your life is over as well. Which makes American Teen not about a rebel, a jock, a princess, a nerd, and a heartthrob, but exactly whom its title promises.