American Teen is every bit as stereotypical as it is real, and it is only stereotypical because it is real—if that makes any sense. In the new documentary from Nanette Burstein, the 2006 senior class at Warsaw Community High School looks like any teen dramedy set: the rich kids are the blonde popular ones; the jocks are the big beefy ones; the geeks are pimply-faced and spend the majority of their time playing videogames. The popular kids don’t suffer many consequences for their actions when they mess up, but the “outcasts” most certainly do—even the adults in their world treat them differently based on their social standing, no matter how minute it may be. The kids end up paying not only for their parents’ mistakes and shortcomings but also by living the vicarious life they truly want. And it all rings so close to home you will spend the entire hour and a half nodding along, regardless of whether you graduated five years ago or fifty.
Hannah, the artistic one, admits she doesn’t really fit in anywhere in her community, let alone her school. She has her one close friend, and she has her boyfriend, and then she has her music and art supplies. She talks of getting out of Indiana—of not having the life her parents have—with wide-eyed optimism that looked just a little too familiar. She wants to go to California to make movies that will touch people and be remembered for years and years and long after she has died. That, too, sounded just a bit familiar.
While in the American Teen screening this week (it’s only out in select theatres right now, in NYC and LA), I couldn’t help but be struck in the face (not unlike how Megan slaps her supposed-best-friend Geoff) with all of the things I wanted and all of the things I believed would happen. Six short years ago, I was this young girl, full of hopes, dreams, and goals for my life in California. Then I screwed it all up by going to college.
At one point Hannah (who really seems to be the star here, as if Burstein took the budding filmmaker under her wing) tells her parents that not everyone has to go to college, but she will get herself out to California. She is determined and will do whatever it takes to get where she wants. When her mother warns her against the dangers of a young girl moving to the big city alone, she doesn’t care; she knows what she has to do. Six years ago, I was in the same mindset, only I opted to get myself there by enrolling at U.S.C. I thought as long as I had somewhere to be everyday and a roof over my head (even if it was on campus), it would be enough of a start. Really, I needed to grab life by the balls and pack my crap into a U-Haul and just go, but instead I took utilized a safety net.
All three years in film school taught me was how difficult the industry was to break into, and with every waking day (and every new unpaid internship that had me photocopying articles of celebrities in tabloid magazines for “research” should they ever come on the show as a guest), I grew a little more disenchanted. The ambitious dreamer I once was slowly suffocated, and I lost the love of the art and got sucked into the business side of things. And as I watched Hannah, still innocent enough to believe and to love, I couldn’t do anything to salvage my teenage self but hope she wouldn’t befall a similar fate. American Teen may not cause the audience to suddenly wish they could transport back in time and redo high school, but it certainly makes us long for the exuberance (and resilience) of youth. It only makes me wonder how much more interesting these "subjects" would have been if the movie started where it actually left off: when they all went off, forced to act and live on their own after eighteen years of coddling and succumbing to their parents' wants and desires.
American Teen opens with a few simple words about how it’s the first day of senior year and that means they only have a few short months left to figure out who they are and where they want to go in life. Hannah speaks the words with a kind of chuckle in her tone that leads me to believe she doesn’t truly believe them. Because I think in order to survive high school these days, you have to know who you are and where you want to go long before your senior year, and though your immaturity may allow for some bumps and detours along the way, your path is destined once you recognize it.