The heartthrob and the popular girl, the jock and the artsy chick, the geek and the agony of neon-bright zits on prom night: These archetypal heroes and their tragicomic challenges have enthralled audiences since young deities misbehaved on Mount Olympus. For many (although not, FYI, me), the sagas climaxed when the detention-room kids in that holy 1980s cinema text The Breakfast Club wrote a group manifesto declaring, ”You see us as you want to see us…in the simplest terms with the most convenient definitions.” Well, duh: Convenient definitions are what teenagers desperately cling to until they’re ready to embrace less convenient self-definitions. Remember? Which is exactly why, through a combination of private memories and decades of shared moviegoing, we warm to these stock characters whenever we meet them on screen. And why we’re usually comforted to find them doing the same old same old. As Napoleon Dynamite put it, ”Sweeeeeet.”
The players are timelessly familiar in American Teen, too. But filmmaker Nanette Burstein tells their stories with a distinctly 21st-century pop and audacity (yes, of hope) that makes this latest version of Fast Times at My So-Called Happy Days High a timely pleasure. For one thing, actual American teens live their real lives in Burstein’s sparkly collage, a carefully sculpted work of nonfiction that challenges voguish notions of documenting reality even as it adds to the genre. The filmmaker (who also made The Kid Stays in the Picture and the Oscar-nominated doc On the Ropes) did strategic sociological homework to arrive at sprawling Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Ind., and select her five anointed stars — and for narrative purposes, these nonpros most definitely are stars. Hannah Bailey, the fetching artiste itching to blow town and become a famous filmmaker herself, is a Claire Danes-ian Angela Chase. Leno-jawed Colin Clemens, with his dusting of acne, is a hoop dreamer to cheer for, with the bonus of an ex-jock dad who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator. Self-described band geek Jake Tusing could have had a cameo in Superbad. Popular, manipulative Megan Krizmanich would feel at home in Election or Mean Girls. Mitch Reinholt has the adaptable good looks to become a Friday Night Lights player named…Mitch Reinholt.
But at the same time, Hannah and her classmates are also regular teens; they’re just young Americans who happen to be texting and gossiping and making out in front of a camera. The thoughtful viewer is meant to ask: Did the camera’s eye influence their actions? Intrude on their privacy? Exploit their adolescence? And in these ethical conundrums, too, American Teen is onto something big about these times, which are so not Molly Ringwald’s times. In this reality show, for instance, a romantic breakup is conducted by text message; a private, flirty half-naked self-photo sent by a naive provocateuse to a boy she likes is forwarded in zoom time to the entire high school universe; and Megan, the class queen bee (pressured by family tradition to get into the University of Notre Dame), is a practiced Heathers hand at leaving cruel, anonymous cell-phone messages for a perceived enemy. Warsaw’s senior class of 2006 may be up to nothing new — their worries include getting into college, scoring baskets, finding love, testing sex, and pursuing the 24/7 goal of avoiding mortification at all costs. But weaned on years of The Real World, they’re used to conducting their lives (such high drama, if only about cafeteria encounters!) with barely a fishnet filter between the private and the public, the posed and the authentic, the heartfelt and the reflexively, defensively ironic.
Inevitably, like a teen trying on the gaudy attitudinal costumes that will eventually be stitched into her own authentic personality, Burstein sometimes pushes excessively with the faux-artsy stuff. Animated sequences meant to reflect her teens’ inner lives are, in particular, distinctly meh. But American Teen cops to its flourishes so honestly that the stylistic squiggles are forgiven by the end. When Hannah, Colin, Jake, Megan, and Mitch receive their diplomas, we beam with genuine emotion. The moment, and this movie, are the opposite of whatever. A-