Warsaw, Indiana is a “typical midwestern town.” As Hannah Bailey elaborates, it’s “mostly white, mostly Christian, red state all the way.” This makes Hannah, aspiring artist and dedicated journal-keeper, determined to escape. All she has to do is survive her last year of high school.
She’s off to a decent start in the first scenes of Nanette Burstein’s American Teen. Charismatic, bright, and entertainingly acerbic concerning her classmates, Hannah notes the “total caste system” that structures their existence (indeed, this does sound like a typical high school). Unfortunately, the documentary’s assorted types — from “queen bee” Megan Krizmanich to “jock” Colin Clemens to “band nerd” Jake Tusing — replicates that system. It’s not enough that the students absorb such limits and roles; the film also uses them in order to grant viewers easy identifications and conventional storylines.
There’s subversive potential here, in the sense that these labels, so painful for teens and too often extended into college and adulthood, might be revealed as the tedious and unimaginative shorthands they are, designed to benefit those at the top of the food chain. But for the most part, American Teen assumes the self-fulfilling truth of the descriptors, and so they function in much the same way that The Real World‘s casting decisions work, occasioning a banal mix of drama, anger, romance, and comedy.
By now, any teenager who agrees to appear in a documentary about being a teenager has likely seen MTV’s 26-year-old series (or any of its redundant clones), which ensures a generic and often painfully circular logic: kids learn hot to behave before cameras by watching other kids behaving before cameras. In Burstein’s movie, the participants’ expectations are apparent from jump. Not only does Hannah function as narrator as well as point of sympathy and emotional identification, she also grants a perspective from which to view some of the less engaging figures, say, Megan. Acting like the wealthy girls on The Hills, except she lives in Warsaw, Megan earns Hannah’s disdain. The film underlines the stereotyping: “She’s the biggest bitch,” says Hannah, just before a cut to Megan, perfect in pink polo shirt. “Maybe I am,” she smiles. She’s also student council vice president, head of the homecoming committee, and plans on being accepted to Notre Dame, her dad and brother’s alma mater. “There’s just so much pressure,” she asserts, an unsubtle hint that acting out will follow.
The trouble here is not that Megan is or is not a “bitch,” but what that means within the film’s social and political compositions. And the question is, how does the film define or indicate its ethical responsibilities toward its subjects? On screen, Megan is no longer a “real” teenager, no matter the film’s tagline or audience expectation. Transformed into representation (and opportunity for projection), she’s subject to multiple readings and embodies a range of meanings. As the many talking heads who have tried to explain themselves in reality TV “confessionals” or on FaceBook know well, the editing of any interaction, activity or comment, not to mention supplementary soundtrack, animation (which is overused in American Teen), or reaction shots, all shape narrative and move viewers. And in this calculus, subjects’ or even makers’ intentions can be sensationally irrelevant.
Just so, when Jake first appears during band practice, he positions himself pretty plainly, accepting judgments even as he seems to resist. “I don’t really belong to any clique,” he says, “I guess my clique is the band clique.” (Translation: “misfit” and “outsider” are powerful labels.) Jake doesn’t have many friends, and he’s desperate in that American Pie kind of way to find a girlfriend before he’s on his way to college. “Maybe it’s the monotone,” he explains, “Maybe it’s the insane collection of video game characters, maybe it’s the face: they all avoid me.” (Close-ups of Jake’s toys and acne nudge you into believing his anxiety has cause: kids, like the adults they are training up to be, can be judgmental, superficial, and mean.) When Jake develops an instant and very intense crush on a girl he meets in band, you’re a little too prepared for it to collapse.
Similarly, you’re anticipating Megan’s life lesson, and Colin’s success. A decent kid by any measure, he’s framed most frequently on the basketball court (where he’s the team’s best hope for playoffs) or surrounded by friends and acolytes. Hardworking and pleasant, he’s got a dad who’s an Elvis impersonator and a future outside of Warsaw. In this, he’s the unlikely source of envy for Hannah, who surely rejects the team business… until she’s immersed in a romance with other jock, the end of which sends her into a tailspin.
This may be American Teen‘s most grueling and frankly compelling sequence, as Hannah descends into depression and finds herself unable to go to school. Her fear of facing the judgment of her classmates seems reasonable, but at the same time, she has a camera crew in tow. It’s hard to see how she might ever imagine receding into a background again: for the subjects of this film, the last year at Warsaw High is all about performance, exposure, and exacerbation. The filmmaking process — however invisible, however copacetic — affects that year immeasurably.