Friday, August 22, 2008

American Teen

American Teen, a documentary chronicling senior year in the lives of four Warsaw, Indiana high school students, was the talk of the town at the Sundance Film Festival, roundly praised as a warm, intimate, and unusually complex look into high school sociology. So I went and I saw but I'm afraid I have to report that the Emperor has no goddamn clothes.

Don't get me wrong, I went in wanting to like it. I'm a massive sucker for high school movies and will almost always enjoy them no matter how generic they get. Occasionally a Superbad will arrive to redeem my faith at a fundamental level, but I can even happily sit through Drillbit Taylor. Why I like 'em so much is hard to say - something about the innate cinematic potential of a bunch of horny young people forced together into an educational building is just compelling - but watching American Teen I absolutely concluded that it's definitely not nostalgia for the actual process of going to high school itself as I was struck by the powerful realization that, "Hey! None of this is interesting!"

Yes, in real life, high school seniors stress out over getting into college, hang out, talk about wanting to escape their hometown, gossip about who's fucking who, and generally engage in small, petty, pointless drama that's meaningless history the second that diplomas are in hand, and guess what - that's exactly what happens in this movie, and nothing more! Unless voyeurism really, really gets you off, there's just nothing here that convinces me anyone needed to film or see this. I suppose I can understand age 40, 50, and 60+ critics to whom mid-00s teenage life is exotic and mysterious being fascinated, but as someone just a few years removed its as mundane to me as taking a shit. If anything I was reminded why I was so enthusiastic to get out of high school back when.

But there's also something more nefarious at work, something that skates really thin on the ice of journalistic integrity. It's impossible for a documentary to truly be "pure," of course - the second you make a cut, you've manipulated things. You re-arrange events to form a narrative, cut out bits that go against that narrative, re-film establishing shots and B-roll footage for transitions, maybe even loop a line or two. But American Teen transcends that, and even watching the movie for the first (only) time, I could tell that many events were either staged or very blatantly recreated, i.e. when the cameras missed an important event the kids were re-gathered and told to act it out with the cameras on. Not with a script exactly, but tightly on a topic, like Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I could tell this because I can identify acting when it's going on, significant conversations occured in bizarrely empty school hallways, and wildly inconsistent acne and hair continuity tell no lies. Other halves of phone conversations were clearly re-recorded and dumped on top of the audio mix, people were goaded into doing interesting things or fed lines from behind the camera, and in general it became a narrative, not a documentary.

To satisfy my suspicions I logged onto message forums and read reports from other students of the high school who confirmed that events were indeed recreated, the filmmakers moved in an entourage through school hallways and classrooms shouting at other students to make room for their "stars," pushed people to interact with or date specific other people, and were even accused of giving the kids alcohol and instructing them to act up. This throws a harsh and unforgiving light on any claim of authenticity and makes me question whether or not what I saw can be straight-facedly be called a "documentary."

Even beyond that I'm at a bit of a loss why people were crediting this film with achieving a level of depth and nuance superior to other examinations of teen life. Amongst the four major subjects, literally no stereotypes are broken, shattered, or even challenged. Our rich, popular hot girl is largely manipulative and vile and gets everything she wants in the end. Our nice jock hangs out with his buds and gets a sports scholarship to a local college. Our art girl dances around and acts crazy and eventually goes to an art school. Our nerd is a nerd, he fails with all the girls. (And in another funny anti-authenticity note, he is shown in one scene playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess alone, to emphasize his isolation. This movie was shot in the fall '05 - spring '06 school year. Twilight Princess came out in November of '06. Gee, I wonder if footage was shot after principal photography?)

I literally have no idea what stereotypes were supposedly challenged, and I'm not just being an argumentative bastard - I just really don't see any! The director seems by far the most enamored with indie art girl Hannah who thinks she's a big rebel by being liberal and freespirited in Warsaw, Indiana, but she is absolutely no different than a dozen indie art girls I knew in Dallas who thought they were big liberal freespirited rebels. Even the Nintendo-loving nerd, who as a former high school Nintendo-loving nerd I should be able to relate to, just bored me to tears.

So unless you're an old person who wants to see how high school in the '00s is different than when you graduated (hint: it's exactly the same plus text messages), go ahead and watch it, but for anyone else, you can experience the same shit in one-tenth the time frame by skimming your senior yearbook, and I'd recommend just doing that instead.

1 Star out of 5

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