American Teen is not profound. In fact, for a documentary driven by angst-riddled teenagers that can rely on cliché only by chance, American Teen is remarkably average. Whether it's a case of life imitating fiction or fiction being validated by real life, American Teen begins like every other teenage opus, from Dazed and Confused to Mean Girls, with a quick establishment of the social caste system and an introduction to the token representative of each group: Hannah Bailey, the free-spirited misfit; Colin Clemens, the star basketball player; Megan Krizmanich, the bitchy, materialistic, homecoming queen; and Jake Tusing, the acne-pocked, video game-obsessed band geek. As the kids drive up to their undeniably typical Midwestern high school and enter the menacing, locker-lined hallway, it's clear that this film will be just as generic as we hoped it wouldn't be.
Maybe this is what Burstein was going for when she holed up for ten months in Warsaw, Indiana and began documenting a crew of teenagers entering their senior year of high school. Perhaps she was hoping to prove that Hollywood's fictive take on teenage life is much closer to reality than most would like to think -- and if so, she couldn't have asked for a better cast of characters. Jake's older brother helps him rebel against his nerddom with a wild night in Mexico; Colin is faced with the prospect of letting himself, his school, and his dad down if he can't get his game together; and Hannah temporarily traverses the social network by dating dreamy jock Mitch Reinholt, a member of Colin's basketball coterie. Sound familiar? It's American Pie, sans actual pie.
The film is exactly what it purports to be, but the result is inevitably disappointing. Teenagers are a source of fascination to us almost immediately after we leave our teen years, and the film falls short of giving them the depth that they deserve and we crave. As Colin's dad lectures him about needing to make more shots because he can't pay for college and Hannah's manic depressive mother reminds her that "she's not that special," the pain and confusion of being trapped somewhere between childhood and adulthood swells in the empty space between the audience and the film, creating a very real connection to the characters. Unlike its blockbuster counterparts, American Teen is genuinely hilarious at moments, familiarly painful at others, and occasionally an uncanny blend of both. The film captures the critical moments of the typical high school experience, invites us to lapse into nostalgia, and insists on investment in the characters' lives. But the ability to prey on basic human emotions isn't revolutionary, and the film feels invasive without being particularly insightful. The constant struggle to resist the emotional breakdown that haunts the teenage years is felt keenly, but is there really good reason to replicate that feeling?
In what seems like a contrived attempt to broaden the scope of the project and justify the inherent discomfort of invading someone's life, American Teen plays with the lust and hope that occupy the characters' minds in tangential video game- and comic book-style sequences. Digitized images of kids holding hands accompany Megan's fantasy about how nice all the Notre Dame students will be, and an animated Jake defends his honor by sword, winning back his ex-girlfriend. Clever at best, these moments of artistic manipulation don’t compensate for a notable lack of purpose in the film. Though they attempt to allay the overwhelming sense that the teenagers, rather than the director, are driving the film, they serve primarily as an unintended opportunity for comic relief.
Filmed in a country where marketing execs fall all over themselves in the attempt to understand the thinking of some of America's biggest consumers, American Teen has the potential to do more than induce reminiscence and remind us why we're glad high school is over. "You'll remember the good times, you'll remember the defining times," the trailer prods, but for most people, opening up a yearbook would be sufficient. The desire to make a documentary about vulnerable teenagers has an inherent cost, and the cost is in no way justified by the end result. As the credits roll and completely predictable updates about the teens appear on screen, we can't help but feel all of our assumptions about the absurdity of high school life are justified. Rather than leaving us with a deeper understanding of today's teenagers, or even a thoughtful take on high school today, we're sold short -- and the characters are, too. The vaults abound with classic high school films. As American Teen contributes nothing of depth to that canon, we'd do better to leave stereotype reinforcement to fiction.