Teen-agers, take note: The documentary “American Teen” and its depiction of the solipsistic, narcissistic, vacuum-sealed culture of the senior class of 2006 in Warsaw, Ind., won’t inspire anyone over the age of 22 to pine for the 12th grade. In fact, just the opposite. Few adults you know would look back wistfully, not to public school, not before that college question is settled, not in the era of orgiastic text-messaging and catfights via mass e-mail. If you don’t read another word here, at least be assured that things All. Get. Better. Later.
Perhaps it’s not really so brutal, but tell that to the roster of 18-year-olds whom director Nanette Burstein (Oscar-nominated for the 1999 boxing documentary “On the Ropes”) has assembled — straight from central casting, but with soul.
The popular girl, Megan Krizmanich, is a ball of blonde entitlement, an SUV-driving, prom-organizing, backbiter whose life’s ambition is to get into Notre Dame, seemingly only because other Krizmaniches already did. The band geek, Geoff Haase, is acne-spattered and droll. He’s also enamored with the idea of a girlfriend but approaches females with the same grace and couth the Bush administration brings to Middle East policy. The jock, Colin Clemens, is affable and popular and has NBA dreams but first has to prove he has even junior college talent. The artist, Hannah Bailey, vacillates between wistful joie de vivre and paralyzing sadness, and dreams of moving to California to become a filmmaker. Sundry other students, siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers and administrators co-star, mainly as nuisances.
The plot is simple: Oh, crap, we’re about to graduate, thank God. It’s a tale old enough to be a fable, so of course the reward is in the telling. In “American Teen,” the telling shines. Save for a couple of ill-placed boom mikes, the filmmakers are invisible. Brisk edits, a few intricate animations and a made-for-downloading soundtrack give the film the feel of an MTV documentary, in a good way. The whole package earned Burstein the directing award from Sundance this year.
The delivery will entertain most viewers; the subject material may well fascinate anyone with a passing interest in what school looks like in the early 21st century. The teens, having come of age amid the first-person confessions of reality TV and the brazen self-branding of MySpace, open themselves to the camera with an almost unnerving earnestness. “I don’t want people to think I’m weak,” Hannah admits, thereby confessing her weakness. The bold and cold and charismatic students succeed here, and everyone recognizes that, the weak most of all.
The overall result of the intimate access is at times jarring in its candor. (Hannah, in particular, invites us into some awfully dark places.) It also suggests shrewd interviewing, and with that, the patina of manipulation. Possibly everyone is too aware of their own commercial potential to be fully trustworthy.
The promotional materials, for one, may strike the hopeful viewer as too self-referential. What’s the message of the “American Teen” poster that mimics the poster of “The Breakfast Club,” John Hughes’ brat pack flick that wallowed in the white-bread high school stereotypes it purported to dispel?
The documentary debases itself in the comparison. For one, these kids blur the stereotypes. The jock here is also a clown, the princess is also a thug, and so on. But moreover, “American Teen’s” payoff arrives without any Hollywood-style revelations from the main cast. Will Megan get into Notre Dame? Will Geoff get laid? Will Colin get a scholarship? Will Hannah escape from Indiana? The answers come, but they do so without much profound self-discovery. Single-mindedness pays off in this world. To be distracted is to be derailed, and to be derailed is to stay right where you are, which is nowhere you want to be.
It says something about that 13th year of public school that the brief epilogues on each of the teens that run during the credits demonstrate greater growth in the intervening year than we witness during the movie. Not for nothing did “Life in Hell” creator Matt Groening call high school the second-deepest pit in hell (just behind junior high). All you 12th graders out there, please, just put your head down and grind out these final two semesters. We’ll see you out in the real world soon enough.