When Nanette Burstein was in high school—a prep school in Buffalo—she spent a year abroad, living with a family in Spain. She was a proper little preppy when she quit the States. She had a pink Mohawk and a new view on life when she got back.
“When you’re a teenager, you just take everything in, you absorb all these ideas,” says the filmmaker, 38 now. “It just opened my mind, not only to new ideas, but just that there’s a bigger world out there and that I can do anything I want. And so, when I got home I was, like, ‘I’m going to be a filmmaker.’ That’s when I decided—when I was about 17—and I stuck to my guns.”
That she has.
In “American Teen,” Burstein—Oscar-nominated for her first feature doc, “On the Ropes,” and highly praised for another, the Robert Evans bio “The Kid Stays in the Picture”—tracks another band of 17-year-olds: a small gaggle of high school seniors in sleepy Warsaw, Ind.
There’s Jake Tusing, an acne-plagued gamer geek who plays in the marching band. There’s Colin Clemens, the basketball star. There’s Megan Krizmanich, rich, pretty, the archetypal mean girl. There’s Mitch Reinholt, the jock. And Hannah Bailey, a boho artist-type with her own dreams of becoming a filmmaker.
Over the course of a year, Burstein tracked the students, documenting their travails: dating, parents, teachers, the bondings and betrayals.
Shooting 1,000-plus hours of film, she captured big moments and small—funny, sad, wickedly cruel.
“They’re revealing themselves in a way that could follow them for the rest of their lives,” Burstein says. “I felt the weight of that responsibility when I was making it.”
Burstein lives in New York with her husband, journalist and screenwriter Scott Anderson. The duo are working on a fiction feature script together. She shot “American Teen” over the 2005-06 school year, selecting conservative Warsaw after narrowing her list of prospective schools, and communities, down to 10.
“I knew I wanted it to be a town that had only one high school,” she says. “And I wanted it to be economically mixed, and I was hoping for it to be racially mixed—but that was hard to find in the Midwest, in small towns.”
The resulting film, nominated for the documentary grand jury prize at Sundance in January, is sort of a real-world “Breakfast Club.” Or make that Real World, like the MTV reality series.
In fact, “reality” TV is something “American Teen,” with its self-absorbed protagonists, is remindful of. But Burstein is quick to make a distinction between her miked non-actors and, say, “The Hills” and its miked non-actors.
“They’re definitely a huge hybrid of fiction and nonfiction,” she says of “The Hills” and the whole reality genre. “Much more than my film. And there’s much more of an emphasis on wealth, and competition.”
Burstein says shows like “The Hills” are “more stagy—we want to control everything in America. It’s unfortunate. ...
“I think there’s something mean-spirited about a lot of them, too. They’re appealing to the basest part of ourselves. We’ve become bottom-feeders.”
Not surprisingly, the filmmaker, who screened “American Teen” at the Philadelphia Film Festival this spring, bristles when she reads reviews that say her film has been influenced by reality TV.
“I made my first film,” released in 1999, “the same way I made this film,” she says. “I think that because this film is about teenagers there is a natural assumption that it’s influenced by reality TV, because there is so much reality TV about teenagers. .. .
“But a lot of reality TV got their cues from documentaries, and now documentaries are being criticized for learning things from reality TV. Funny.”