Nanette Burstein likes to immerse herself in a subject, shoot miles of footage, and tell a story with the edited footage. At 38, she was already a TV director and documentary filmmaker of some repute (“On the Ropes,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture”). But that was BS - Before Sundance.
Her yearlong look into the world of a rural Indiana high school, “American Teen,” grabbed the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in January.
But as the documentary, which follows four graduating teenagers - a jock who needs to win a scholarship, a spoiled pretty rich girl, the acne-scarred video gaming loner and the high-strung artsy girl who wants to be a filmmaker - rolls into theaters, the acclaim isn’t entirely universal. “Like much reality TV, sections of ‘American Teen’ seem patently staged, or coached, for the camera,” Peter Rainer complained in The Christian Science Monitor. We reached Burstein by phone in New York.
Question: How did you end up telling these stories?
Answer: When I picked the school in Warsaw (Indiana), I basically interviewed every kid from the graduating class who was interested in the project, in giving us the access. I picked 10 kids, a list I winnowed down, after a few months, to the four we follow. And we shot 1,200 hours of footage, which we cut the movie from.
The reason we picked these four? Each had a dramatic story, something that they wanted to achieve that year, a scholarship, getting into Notre Dame, film school, a date for the prom.
Q: Not everything in the movie flatters the kids. How did they take seeing the finished product, warts and all?
A: Well, they’ve been out promoting it, so it didn’t bother them that much. None of us is perfect, and I think the movie makes you end up rooting for each of them. Megan, for instance, isn’t your typical queen bee mean girl/rich girl. She has trauma that she’s struggled with.
Q: And the moral of the movie is that those “Breakfast Club”/“Friday Night Lights” high school stereotypes still apply?
A: The cliches, the stereotypes, exist for a reason. We all get these labels, the “theater geek,” the “math nerd.” And these kids were no different. But the reason they’re the ones who made the cut is that they surprised me. They’re not who the labels make them out to be. That’s what the movie gets at, I think.
Q: Some of the criticism the film is drawing seems to suggest that like any documentary, the presence of your camera alters behavior, that the kids were “acting for the camera” at times. Your response?
A: You can’t write this stuff. That’s what’s great about documentaries. Real life is stranger than fiction. There’s all these spontaneous moments we captured because we were always there. I am being criticized for the very thing this film achieves, its reality. High school is this place of stereotypes and cliques and larger-than-life teenage drama. Life is very melodramatic at that age, and sometimes we forget that.