Excuse the bluntness, but every high school class has a queen bitch, and in “American Teen” it’s Megan Krizmanich, on her way to the family alma mater of Notre Dame.
She has no qualms about taunting and humiliating a classmate who bares her breasts in a private e-mail or inscribing “fag” on the window of a boy who had the audacity to oppose her decorating ideas for the senior prom. Later, we learn one fact that may explain Megan’s behavior. Nothing, however, excuses it, and you may be left wondering what kind of adult Megan will turn out to be, even after four years at Notre Dame.
Megan is not a fictional creation but a real person, one of a handful of high school seniors chronicled by filmmaker Nanette Burstein in what qualifies as a quasi-documentary in the tradition of “The Breakfast Club.” The students are all members of the Warsaw, Ind., Class of 2006.
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Nanette Burstein
STARRING Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Jake Tusing, and Mitch Reinholt
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
We also meet Colin Clemens, a star basketball player whose father threatens him with an army career if he does not get a Division I scholarship; Jake Tusing, the acne-ridden class geek in love with video games and looking for a girlfriend; Mitch Reinholt, a Matthew McConaughey look-alike and popular boy who inexplicably finds himself attracted to an aspiring artist, a bohemian type named Hannah Bailey.
“American Teen” is a peculiar and undeniably arresting portrait of life in a Midwestern community, which, as presented here, is almost all-white. It is also a movie that invites questions about its total authenticity. It’s hard to believe, for instance, that the camera was rolling when one girl gets a text message informing her of a breakup; this is not the only moment that seems staged. Even more annoying and intrusive are the infrequent uses of animation Burstein employs to help us understand what a certain subject is feeling.
On the other hand, “American Teen” shimmers with truths about the adolescent experience, which, despite the technological advances of cellphones and IMs, has not significantly changed. Though Burstein’s choices are clearly and necessarily subjective, we meet recognizable types of kids — from the geek to the prom queen, from the outcast artiste to the star athlete. Adults of all ages might conclude that nothing about the high school experience has really changed.
Some viewers may register surprise at the candid behavior of teens who know they are being filmed. Congratulate Burstein for her ability to keep her subjects at ease, but one may also conclude that today’s teens are less self-conscious than kids of previous generations, perhaps because of the plethora of video cams and reality TV.
Wanting to know more
As is usually the case with these kinds of projects, we leave wanting to know more about the backgrounds of these kids and motives for some of their behavior. What prompted one boy to break up with the girl he had so much fun with? Was it peer pressure? Was it something she said? Was she just too much for him?
We understand what Hannah (the movie’s most interesting character) is going through when she refuses to go to school for weeks. But after we see her singing with a band, we wonder what brought about the turnaround. Often, we catch glimpses and sketches when we instead want and need more information, more depth. Yet, despite these qualms — and to her credit — Burstein does capture moments that, as they say, explain everything.
Attempting to dissuade her from heading to California after graduation, Hannah’s mother tells her, “You’re not special.” At that moment, you know that Hannah has to get out and fast. Will she muster the courage to defy a mother who may mean well but has no clue?
We may need to know little more when we see the father of the basketball star dressed in an Elvis outfit.
Like “16 in Webster’s Grove,” a CBS documentary made in the early ’60s, “American Teen” is a touchstone document that not only speaks to us but will encourage intelligent discussion about growing up in America. If it does not supply crucially new information, it does remind us that adolescence is a most troublesome and depressing experience. In retrospect, it may seem a miracle that so many of us have escaped, not so much unscathed, but alive.