American Teen


"In no order of things is adolescence the time of the simple life." Janet Erskine Stuart

As a non-television viewing guy, I may have just been introduced to a reality-show type of documentary, American Teen, directed and scripted by the acclaimed Nanette Burstein.
That this look into the life of four typical graduating teens at mid-America's Warsaw Community High in Indiana may look like an episode on Real World I have on good advice. That it frequently seems like a docudrama I have on my own counsel.

American teen covers all the bases with stock characters: the nerd, the queen, the outsider, the jock, but these are real teens with real challenges such as attracting dates, getting accepted to the right college, meeting dad's expectations-- well, you know the drill if you know teens, be they in Indiana or Los Angeles. Burstein was successful in allowing the legendary producer Robert Evans to tell his unique story in The kid Stays in the Picture. "Unique" doesn't generally apply to American Teen.

As I questioned Errol Morris's manipulations in his documentary Standard Operating Procure (2008) (re-enactments, arty images, and sublimating music), so I question Burstein's artful interpretations: animated sequences about the teen's anxieties and dreams and arguably rehearsed or set-up scenes, the most obvious a face-slapping reaction that looks rehearsed if not just plain lucky for the filmmaker to be there to catch it. Similarly, but less dramatically, is a father calmly telling his son to get a basketball scholarship or go into the Army. It's all too pat, or as several critics have said, "slick."

Maybe because I had several children who passed through senior high with similar experiences, I am not feeling enlightened by American Teen. A successful doc usually gives insight; this one gives me reservations about the durability of the real documentary.