It's no accident that most of the great teen movies — American Graffiti, Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High spring to mind — were made decades ago, when adolescents were still thought of as a generation rather than a demographic. Now, our 16-year-olds are mashed into caricature and spat out whole as mean girls, nice girls, freaks and geeks, hunks and jocks. (When John Hughes did it, he was commenting on the caricatures, not enforcing them.) Even the flannel-shirted Juno, raised above the pack by screenwriter Diablo Cody's above-average argot and insight into the fact that teens get into trouble mostly because they're bored senseless, is the fairly standard odd girl out.
Now comes Nanette Burstein, maker of the entertaining Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, with a mission to deepen the conversation by breaking down the wall between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking in American Teen. Armed with a small camera crew, a handheld camera for intimate moments and a good deal of ambivalence about whether she wanted to be "noninvasive" or form a "tight bond" with her young subjects, Burstein spent a year hanging out with a handful of carefully chosen adolescents from the only high school in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana, orthopedic manufacturing capital of the world. She gathered, the production notes tell us, 1,000 hours of "raw, spontaneous footage" of the students going about their lives at home and school, which she worked up into a "compelling narrative." This sounds to me like a fair working definition of a documentary, and by the relaxed standards of nonfiction filmmaking today, it's not all that remarkable that the kids' paths cross more than can be accounted for by serendipity, or that Burstein has woven in an alt-rock score and some lovely animation by the innovative company Blacklist, to catch the flavor of each teen's inner life.
Even when it's ripping off Juno and The Hills, American Teen is fascinating in the way of every good documentary — the more time you spend with anyone, the more they surprise you. Burstein caught how teens use their techno toys to ratchet up the cruelty quotient, and the unnerving way they live in an eternal present devoid of consequence or the bigger picture; the intensity of their passions; the speed with which adversity deflates them, and the astonishing resilience with which most bounce back and endure. And endure they must, since most of their moms and dads, at least as edited here, appear to have thoroughly internalized the fairly recent notion that parenting means applying pressure.
So it's a pity that in selecting her young subjects and shaping their stories, Burstein — or someone above her — can't quite shake off the hackneyed typecasting. I started worrying when the chosen five came onstage before the screening I attended and introduced themselves as the nerd, the sports hero, the princess, the rebel and the hunk. Without the reductive labeling, they're Jake, an insecure, self-scrutinizing shy boy who's actually pretty cute despite the acne blooming all over his face; Colin, a gangly basketball star trying to live up to his image; popular Megan, whose tolerance for things not going her way hovers around zero; and Mitch, a fresh-faced pretty-boy of the kind who ordinarily would appear in the yearbook with his arms around Megan, but who shows a powerful, if momentary, indie-film sensibility by falling for Hannah, a fragile elf who likely has inherited at least some of her mother's manic depression and artistic nature. Their struggles with each other, with their parents and with themselves are plenty absorbing, but I'm not the first to notice that the poster for American Teen is designed to remind us of The Breakfast Club. Which is exactly why it matters that the movie clarify whether it's drawing life — or fiction.