Whatever barely discernible line may yet remain between the traditional documentary and “reality programming,” American Teen clearly has no use for it. About midway through this ostensible portrait of ordinary adolescence, which was filmed over the course of a single school year in the nondescript Midwestern town of Warsaw, Indiana, we see a young girl cheat on her boyfriend, sneaking off to a poolhouse to make out with her beau’s nemesis in the shallow end. She lies to the boyfriend about where she’s going that night; later, when he confronts her with rumors of her extracurricular activities, she professes ignorance and confusion. Yet she invited director Nanette Burstein to follow her with a video camera and record the tryst for our entertainment. At that point, I gave up all hope of learning anything about human behavior from this movie. If it’s mere voyeurism you seek, on the other hand, you can’t do much better.
As you may have gathered from the film’s marketing campaign, its five subjects were chosen primarily on the basis of how well they conform to standard-issue Breakfast Club stereotypes. There isn’t exactly a brain among the group, but Jake Tusing, the aforementioned cuckold, is a certified band geek with no evident social skills. Basketball star Colin Clemens, whose father continually reminds him that he can’t afford to attend college without an athletic scholarship, feels constant pressure to win! win! win! (you son of a bitch). There’s a privileged princess, Megan Krizmanich (who seems to have spent a lot of time studying Mean Girls), and an artsy “basket case,” Hannah Bailey (who undergoes a total meltdown after getting dumped). And what of the ungovernable, incorrigible Judd Nelson rebel? Meet affable jock Mitch Reinholt, who commits the ultimate 21st-century offense: breaking up with somebody via text message.
No doubt Burstein intended American Teen to demonstrate the various ways in which these kids transcend their appointed roles, and we do get the stray telling glimpse of a complex human being lurking beneath the surface affectations. Trouble is, the presence of the camera undermines that goal at every turn. When Jake summons the courage to ask the new girl in town out on a date—with a camera crew standing right behind him—what’s she going to say? Mitch and Hannah briefly get together, despite belonging to oppositional cliques ... but when Mitch chooses to end the relationship after Hannah meets his friends at a party, is that because his peer group found her too arty and weird? Or might it have had something to do with the introductions, which must have gone, “This is Hannah, and this is the documentary film crew that’s following her around everywhere she goes and will be recording this whole shindig”?
I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how we can be expected to take any of this seriously. A more knowing, postmodern film might have deliberately explored the irony of media-saturated teenagers gradually conforming to movie-made expectations before the lens, but there isn’t even a remote suggestion of that here. On the contrary, Burstein seems to believe that she’s giving us a reasonably unmediated look at a handful of average high-school seniors, which is simply ludicrous. People change their behavior when they know that they’re being observed. And so American Teen’s tidy narratives—Colin learns to stop being such a ball-hog; Jake takes a trip to Mexico and finds a soulmate; Hannah escapes her hick town for San Francisco—come across as just that: narratives. In which case you might as well just sit down and write a screenplay. At least that way there’s no pretense that what we’re seeing has anything to do with reality.