American Teen is documentary that boldly goes where few films and television programs about teens ever do: Into their heads. Thirteen accomplished this as did MTV’s Two-A-Days but few others have. American Teen chronicles five real teens during their senior year at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana. They range from the top of the food chain in Warsaw Community High School to the invisible and ignored. Megan Krizmanich is one of the most popular girls in school. She comes from an affluent family and has tons of friends. Hannah Bailey is an outsider but more by choice than by social default. She is no conformist, neither in attitude, her actions or the way she dresses. Colin Clemens is one of the best basketball players on the Warsaw basketball team. All of his dreams for the future ride on this basketball season. Jake Tusing is the person no one sees or notices in Warsaw High School. He exists on the fringe of Warsaw’s social topography. The fifth person is Mitch Reinholt, the object of female desire in school, and also a member of the Warsaw basketball team.
Once the setting and the “characters” stories have been established (some established later in the film), the viewer watches them as they proceed through their senior year. As one would expect, the viewer learns all about the characters’ dreams and aspirations. American Teen reveals that high school is still the social, clic-driven battleground that many remember, strewn with the devastation of burgeoning emotions, hormones, friendships, disappointments, hopes and aspirations.
The viewer may or may not be very surprised by some of the audacious and intentional cruelty perpetrated by some students on others in American Teen. Cringe-level cruelty and the most absurd part was that the perpetrators did these acts on camera, recording their misanthropic deeds for all time and for the entire would to see. One of the recipients of this cruelty, Erica, should be given a lot of credit. She obviously wanted to bust out crying and probably had multiple times, “whatever”, but held it together when she was on camera.
Some viewers may give Jake a lot of props for going to the home of the new freshmen band member named Lauren, presenting himself and giving her flowers. That took a degree of courage no one else exhibits in the American Teen and shows how misjudged in certain areas Jake really is. It is too bad Lauren turns out to be, as Martin Lawrence remarked in Nothing to Lose, a “cheatin’ bitch”. Jake is the conundrum in American Teen, an enigma. He wants to go to social engagements then does not want to participate in them once he gets there. Why go to Prom, go through all that trouble and humiliation then not dance when the girl you asked to Prom asks you to? What about making your date happy? Did the concept of hooking up after Prom even occur to him? Jake wants one thing then acts to the detriment of it in others, making him an outsider to the very people he wants to be with and be close to at Warsaw Community High School.
With graduation looming, the students of Warsaw are faced with attending higher education institutions and what their futures hold for them. For the five students followed in American Teen it is no different but the issue is made even more prominent in two of the students lives. Megan has the weight of living up to her families’ lineage and expectations for attending Notre Dame University. Colin’s family can not afford to send him to college. He must either obtain a basketball scholarship or join the military to get out of his home town. There is a very telling moment about the reality of the latter choice as a glass encased military memorial is shown virtually overflowing with mementos and pictures of the dead from Warsaw High.
It is the revelations in the second and third acts of American Teen that intrigue and surprise. The viewer may wonder why certain characters act the way they do. Through many of the revelations, we are given a glimpse into their psyches. It does not mitigate or explain everything they say or do but it does make them that much more human and flawed, just like the rest of us.
Nanette Burstein’s American Teen is a teen life documentary about what it means to be a teen high school student in the Midwest (but by inherent implications, everywhere) without the accouterments of like-films by Michael Moore. American Teen is pretty raw in some of the things it depicts and also very honest. Many people that see this film will probably be able to see themselves in one or more or the main characters in the film in some form but whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is up to them.