[1 August 2008]
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)
The rites of teen passage have inspired feature films as diverse as “American Beauty” and “American Pie.” Nanette Burstein’s documentary “American Teen” demonstrates that a nonfiction account of adolescence is as engrossing as any scripted drama.
“High school was a really tough time for me,” said Burstein, Academy Award-nominated for her documentary about movie-studio politics, “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” Her new film tracks five middle-American kids from Warsaw, Ind., through their senior year. “But it was a really formative time for me, too. I changed dramatically and developed independent spirit by the end, despite all the pressure not to. I’ve watched a lot of movies about young people and been entertained by some and largely dissatisfied by others. So I thought there’s a need to tell these great stories that I saw, but do them with real kids and show them as complicated as they really are and break down those stereotypes.”
Her subjects, jock Colin Clemens, princess Megan Krizmanich, heartthrob Mitch Reinholt, geek Jake Tusing and art-rebel Hannah Bailey, face endless varieties of stress, from cross-clique romance and heartbreak to peer pressure, college admissions worries and prom date jitters. They fall into categories that would fit easily into a John Hughes film, but that’s okay with Burstein.
“I wasn’t running away from that,” she said. “I just wanted to tell it in a more three-dimensional, human way than you’re used to seeing. We’ve seen the ‘Mean Girls’ story and the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story. They have happy endings and people act in a way that’s unrealistic. If you do it with real kids and make it as intimate as possible, you get deeper into what people are really feeling.”
The glut of TV reality programming about teens didn’t trouble her, Burstain said. “So much of it is about the super-wealthy kids in America, like ‘The Hills, ‘Laguna Beach’ or ‘My Super Sweet 16.’ They’re TV shows, very much like soap operas rather than movies, so I thought making a strong movie about these characters would differentiate it.” Burstein followed her subjects for a year, capturing unguarded moments of cell-phone gossip mongering, vandalism, emotional freakouts and pure boredom. She also got the kids to discuss their innermost fears and fantasies, which she illustrated with sequences of wild animation.
“There’s a lot of wishful thinking that goes on in high school. You wish your life was like this and you wish your life was like that, and I really wanted to be able to show that in a vivid way. Animation was the most appropriate visual tool because it was surreal and fantastical or nightmarish in some cases.”
It took time to develop that level of trust. “They were a little dubious of me at first. The kids I filmed were ones who showed up and said they wanted to do this. I didn’t chase after anyone who wasn’t interested in the process. It took a few months but I was there for 10 and they got comfortable after a while.”
Over time, Burstein found herself acting as the kids’ documentary biographer one moment and mentor the next.
“It would be give and take. You want the moment to happen, but then you put down the camera and talk to them. At the beginning of the film, Hannah’s boyfriend breaks up with her and it’s devastating to her. She’s crying to her friend about it and I was filming that. I spent about a half hour filming her and three hours talking to her about it. You’re there to do your job as a filmmaker and not intervene in moments but because you do develop a close relationship in order for them to feel comfortable on camera, I do talk to them and act as a big sister.” She didn’t censor the film to protect anyone’s feelings: One girl is humiliated when a topless photo circulates throughout the entire school.
But the film avoids cheap cynicism as well. Burstein concludes her story with updates on the kids’ first steps into adulthood, where they seem to be thriving and happy. After high school, the film suggests, real life is a breeze.