Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen's 2002 documentary, "The Kid Stays In the Picture" (which followed the highs and lows of the wild life of producer Robert Evans) was one of my favorite films of that year. With a strong visual style and a terrific subject, the documentary remained richly entertaining and managed to be both hilarious and heartbreaking. While Morgen followed the film up with the fascinating "Chicago 10", Burstein's "American Teen" is an entertaining but less successful effort, looking into the lives of a series of teens from Indiana.
As someone who's facing turning 30 in a few months, I'm not so far removed from high school that it's a distant memory. While there were groups and there was drama, there was also the fact that I went to an academically tough high school, so getting decent grades required enough effort that there may not have been enough left for much drama. In terms of a social life, I played high school like "Survivor", remaining friendly and likable enough to be accepted by a wide range of people, but in a way that not that outgoing, allowing me to fly under the radar. I didn't need or even really want to be anyone's best friend, I simply wanted a environment where everyone was friendly.
I didn't find the social aspect of high school as difficult as most, but I also didn't involve myself in anyone's drama or create drama of my own. "American Teen"'s ad line is "Remember high school? It's gotten worse." While some of what is seen in the film is incredibly dismaying, the film doesn't veer away from showing the familiar: teens can be mean, there can be cliques (one subject is the geek, one is the jock, one is the prom queen, etc. etc.) and teenage life can be incredibly difficult.
I think the difficulty is: what do we take away from this? It's remarkable that teens can be so mean and petty to one another in an age where there has been so much discussion of the hurt that bullying can cause. What has caused teens today to be so hurtful to others, especially in such a remarkably casual way? While kids watching "American Teen" will likely relate to what they see here (and/or they've seen similar things here-and-there on MTV specials), are parents not just a little horrified to see how kids act? We don't see the parents much in "American Teen", and it's too bad that they aren't given the chance to react more to some of the actions of their children.
Aside from a rather stage-y (such as the text messaging bits) feel at times (although despite the staged feel, I'm sure events like those seen in the film are happening at high schools around the country), the other concern is that the film might have benefited from a few less subjects, as the result of following several kids is that the movie doesn't get too deeply into the minds of its subjects (and a couple of the subjects are simply bland to begin with). I wished the movie could have focused more on subjects like Hannah, a troubled free spirit dealing with being in a conservative town. In fact, the whole movie could have focused on Hannah, who goes through a lot of struggles and still manages to find strength by the end of the movie in a scene where she confronts her parents.
Hannah is the only one who seems to have changed by the end (as well as the subject with the most depth), and to see her find happiness in the film's wordless final moments makes for a strong ending for an otherwise uneven movie. A more narrow focus would have also likely lead to the film having a somewhat less rambling (the animated segments could have been dropped) and episodic feel, too. As is, this is a flawed, but watchable look at high school life today.
The DVD release is a Target exclusive for purchase (although is available at Amazon.com for download), and appears to be available for rental at Netflix.
VIDEO: Paramount presents "American Teen" in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Given the low-budget documentary style, the somewhat soft, grainy look of the movie is to be expected. However, despite the low-budget style, the transfer handles the material well, as while detail was never crystal clear, sharpness at least remained consistent. No instances of edge enhancement or pixelation were spotted, and colors looked natural and clean.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was a simple, documentary-style presentation, focusing mostly on dialogue. Audio quality was fine, with crisp dialogue and full, clear music.
EXTRAS: Hannah video blogs, "character" trailers, a short cast interview and deleted scenes. It's a little odd that Burnstein is nowhere to be seen in the extras. It's really unfortunate that the kids were not given the chance to do a commentary to give their take on some of the scenes in the movie.
Final Thoughts: "American Teen" remains a flawed, but watchable documentary-style take on the lifes of several Midwestern teens. The DVD offers fine audio/video quality, as well as a few minor extras.
The Film B-