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American Teen /

Rated: PG-13

Starring: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemmens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing

Directed by: Nannette Burstein

Produced by: Nannette Burstein, Eli Gonda, Chris Huddleston, Jordan Roberts
Written by: Nannette Burstein
Distributor: Paramount Vantage

     I was pulling for American Teen to succeed before I began to watch it. The film’s purported goal—to provide an authentic vision of contemporary teenage life in America, sans all of the drama of, say, Thirteen—is rather admirable. That said, ten minutes in, the exercise has already become self-defeating. Filmmaker Nanette Burstein may very well have entered the project with the aforementioned noble intention, but the movie she has completed doesn’t reflect such. This is an MTV-styled celebration of all of the irrelevant lunacy of teenage life, not an introspective look at the complexities of the period. Burstein feels like a fifteen year old assembling the action, not only relying on selective editing and a cheesy structure like an amateur filmmaker of the age would, but also thoroughly engaging her four central characters. American Teen would like to think it will send a message of comfort to its teenage viewers; instead, it will likely make them pray they don’t come off as idiotically as most of the movie’s subjects do on a day-to-day basis.

     Most of the problems of American Teen stem from the fact that at least two of its subjects aren’t at all accurate representations of demographics in the teenage population. The result is a picture that often feels like it’s trying to be clever rather than meditating on the various pains, pleasures, and pressures associated with an age.

     Burstein mistakenly would like us to think that subject Jake Tusing is a standard “geek” because he has acne and plays video-games, but I don’t think I encountered anyone at all similar to him in my years in high school. Jake is distinguishable for the fact that he’s desperate to have a girlfriend, rampaging around the hallways of local Warsaw Community High trying to hook up (almost randomly as Burstein would like us to think) with girls. Of course, the movie always depicts Jake in a misunderstood light, never really forcing the audience to think critically about the girls he does beg into submission. One is years younger than him—he’s a senior and, as I recall, she’s a freshman—and one he refuses to dance with at a school function she is nice enough to accompany him to. Sure, Burstein might try to make the case that she wanted to form an unbiased view of her characters to counter-argue my point, but what she actually does is far from such. Bustein clearly tries to make the audience feel bad for Jake and, as such, depicts him as yet another “helpless geek” of cinema, one of cartoonish, Revenge of the Nerds-proportions.

     Burstein’s other “favorite” subject—and ironically the one that she marginalizes the most—is Hannah Bailey, the token “artsy rebel” of the picture. Hannah doesn’t have many friends herself, but she tries to connect with others who are interested in the Arts and who don’t follow Warsaw’s traditional conservative mold. She ends up falling for Mitch Reinholt, a popular guy who is thought to be out of her league, only to find out that he likes her too. The results are particularly disastrous when the relationship falls to a typical teenage crumble, causing Hannah to go into meltdown mode. This ultimately boosts her desire to leave Warsaw for San Francisco, an idea that Burstein glamorizes to no end. Possibly because she identifies with Hannah’s abstract sensibilities, Burstein indulges the girl, depicting Hannah to an irrationally angelic extent even when she is acting like a downright brat (especially during the film’s third act). The movie is often recklessly sympathetic with its subjects all for the sake of crafting captivating situations, resulting in a picture that feels reckless and irresponsible. (In Hannah’s case, Burstein turns what may be a case of clinical depression into the typical misfit sob-story.)

     In order to go full-circle and cover every conventional clique, Burstein must of course also turn her cameras to Colin Clemens, “the jock,” and Megan Krizmanich, “the prep.” Ironically, these two are the most interesting characters in the movie, and yet they are trivialized because they are the most normal. Colin plays basketball and needs a scholarship to pay for college because his father can’t afford to pay for it (he works as an Elvis impersonator). Burstein’s dramatic tactics pay off rather well in this story-thread; the weight of each missed basket Colin makes in front of college-recruiters is felt with agony as the audience witnesses highlights from his games. Nonetheless, because he represents her token meathead, Burstein often doesn’t allow Colin’s considerable intelligence to come through. Thankfully, however, she doesn’t treat Colin as a bad guy because he’s popular, as she does with Megan. While Megan may not be a saint—she engages in an abundance of standard teenage tomfoolery, in one scene toilet-papering a rival student council member’s house and spray-painting a penis onto his window (with temporary window paint, mind you)—she doesn’t deserve to be demonized in the way Burstein allows her to be. Megan, really, is more typical in behavior and personality than any of her counterparts, subjected to Bustein’s angst for no real reason other than to fit a desired caricature.

     Ultimately American Teen does exactly the opposite of what it should. In order to achieve its goals, the movie needed to break down the traditional stereotypes of high school; instead, filmmaker Burstein does nothing but enforce them. If Jake really represents the standard geek in all of his arrogance and cluelessness, then geeks everywhere deserve to be mocked. If Hannah really represents the standard artsy rebel in all of her bitching and moaning and inconsequential thinking, then artsy rebels everywhere deserve to be cast out from the rest of the high school crowd. If Colin really represents the standard jock in all of his focused energy towards basketball, then jocks everywhere really are tools. And if Megan really represents the standard prep in all of her selectively-edited mean-spiritedness, then preps everywhere really are demonic. But the truth of the matter is that Jake and Hannah are not normal high-schoolers and Colin and Megan are manipulated into fitting the mold of exaggerated stereotypes. If American Teen were effective in depicting the average teenager and thereby comforting its average teenage viewer, then it would show how similar standard members of every high-school clique are. What Burstein shows her audience, especially in Jake and Hannah, is a version of high school that is disquieting only because it is nothing like high school. American Teen may be moderately entertaining for its manipulative dramatic values—much in the same way that typical MTV-programming is—but it certainly comes up short in fulfilling a thoughtful thesis. While it never quite reaches crass territory, Burstein’s film doesn’t begin to achieve any level of authenticity, either.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 7.28.2008

Screened on: 7.22.2008 at the UltraStar Del Mar Highlands 8 in Del Mar, CA.


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