What is it about teenagers that fascinates us so? In the case of many TV shows — from The O.C. to My Super Sweet 16 — there's an obsession with wealthy teens, kids who seem to have way too much way too young. We love seeing the spectacle these kids provide, their outrageous demands, their bratty tantrums that make us tsk-tsk even as we turn up the volume. We love affirming (in certain cases) that money doesn't solve everything, nor does it make anyone a better person.
The documentary American Teen, however, never focuses on this kind of outrageous opulence. The main idea is to get a glimpse at four Indiana kids from different backgrounds and social circles. Yet while everything in the film is completely ordinary, it still fascinates us.
American Teen was one of the best-received documentaries at Sundance, as evidenced in part by the various studios that courted filmmaker Nanette Burstein before Paramount Vantage bought up the rights. I admit I was driven to see the film partly out of curiosity to see these kids go through this delicate, difficult, and intense time of life that I've already experienced in my own way. Is this curiosity the thing that drives the desire to see American Teen? If not, why do we want to see these relatively normal stories so badly?
More thoughts on this if you
On paper, the four kids in Warsaw, Indiana, chosen as the subjects for the film are almost laughably stereotypical. There's the bitchy drama queen popular girl, the band geek with a love for video games, the handsome basketball star with a promising future, and the quirky creative girl who "will never fit in here." This stuff writes itself. There's enough relationship drama, class warfare, and cliquey politics for any scripted show, made more fierce by that youthful mix of optimism, fickle emotions, and selfishness. And it's actually real — or, as real as people can be with cameras on them.
At first the movie seems like it will be like some kind of twisted Midwest version of Laguna Beach. There are weirdly staged-sounding comments and gestures, and some of the kids seem hyper-aware of the presence of the cameras. In time, however, it's hard not to become enmeshed in the kids' lives, their friends' lives, their parents' lives. And Burstein does such an exceptional job at arranging all this information in a compelling way, these kids are impossible to forget for days afterward.
One of the Sundance officials introduced the film by stating that "interpreting our times through the lives of our young people is important work." As I watched the movie I wondered, is this true? And are people interested in this movie because of this "important work" or merely to gawk at the ways these kids misbehave, to judge the harsh words of their parents?
On the bus afterward I chatted with a woman who said, "I'm 44 years old and besides some of the technology — cell phones and things — it's all the same. Nothing's changed. It's all the same as when I was that age." So maybe what I initially suspected is true: We watch to see if we were so different from "the kids today." Turns out not much does change. And there is comfort in that.
Bottom line: American Teen is a seriously well-made, well-edited and highly entertaining way to "interpret our times through the lives of our young people."