Nanette Burstein’s 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture took a riveting look at the rise and fall of the legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans, who was responsible for some of the biggest movies to come out of Hollywood during the 70s. For her latest film, Burstein has shifted her focus from the rich and famous to the altogether more banal lives of suburban teens. The subjects in American Teen are five high school students from Warsaw, Indiana, and the film’s Breakfast Club-style poster is the first indication that Burstein’s documentary owes a debt to John Hughes – which for many film-goers might be no bad thing.
The stereotypes are all here: The Rebel (Hannah Bailey), The Geek (Jake Tusing), The Jock (Colin Clemens), The Heartthrob (Mitch Reinholt) and The Princess (Megan Krizmanich). Burstein’s team tracked the 17-year-olds throughout their senior year, and the result is an entertaining, and sometimes painful, reminder of the agonies of adolescence. Of the five students, the most compelling are easily Hannah/The Rebel and Jake/The Geek. Hannah gets dumped, works on her art, plays in a band, hooks up with The Heartthrob and gets dumped again when his friends dismiss his ‘outsider’ girlfriend. She’s desperate to get out of the small, narrow-minded town and move to California after graduation. Jake, cursed with acne, braces and a near-total lack of social skills, is desperate for a girlfriend. Watching the film, you wish you could pull Hannah and Jake aside and tell them that the geeks and the rebels are the ones who end up starting companies like Facebook and becoming filmmakers.
But the other students have their own problems too: Colin’s a star basketball player on a struggling team, and while his popularity is in little doubt, the pressure on him to secure a scholarship is intense – it’s his only hope of being able to make it into college when his dad, who has a sideline in Elvis impersonation, can’t afford the tuition. It’s a lot harder to have sympathy for Megan, the poor little rich kid who wants to please her surgeon father by making it into Notre Dame, his alma mater. But by scratching below the surface, Burstein reveals that even The Princess has had her share of tough breaks.
There’s always going to be an audience for this kind of teen biopic, if the popularity of Gossip Girl and the resuscitation of 90201 is anything to go by. American Teen may not have the immediacy of Frederick Wiseman’s classic cinema verité documentary High School (1968), and in some ways it feels less realistic than Antonio Campos’s fictional Afterschool (2008), one of the highlights of last year’s London Film Festival. But Nanette Burstein’s documentary is a fun, engaging look at a bunch of kids stumbling over the universal pitfalls that all teenagers struggle with.
American Teen is also screening at the Birds Eye View Film Festival on Saturday 7 March at the ICA. More information on the Birds Eye View website. Read our preview of the retrospective strand of Birds Eye View on screen vamps in the new print issue of Electric Sheep. Our spring issue focuses on Tainted Love to celebrate the release of the sweet and bloody pre-teen vampire romance Let the Right One In, with articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, Franí§ois Ozon‘s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg‘s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kôji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), Berlin squat cinema, the Polish New Wave that never existed and comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation + much more!