They're not marketing "American Teen" as a documentary - the posters invoke John Hughes comedies and "Juno." It doesn't even necessarily play as a documentary; my screening companion went in cold and, until the closing credits, thought she was watching a mockumentary. But "American Teen" is a documentary and one very much of our Facebook, text-messaging, reality-TV moment. What it documents is how, more than ever, we live our American lives for show. Even when - especially when - we're adolescents.
Filmmaker Nanette Burstein chose as her subject a high school in Warsaw, Ind., because it was "your typical Midwestern town," and in a way she was right on the money. Because high school is always about projecting who you want to be and hiding who you're afraid you are, her cameras captured how four thoroughly average teenagers reinvent themselves on a day by day, class by class basis.
A Frederick Wiseman-style cinema verite this isn't - not with aggressively hip animated segments illustrating the subjects' inner lives. Yet as co-opted as the filming is in the way these kids are seen - which is to say they can't not play to the camera - "American Teen" is more honest than, say, "Survivor." Consciously or not, the movie's about the way we structure our lives as drama if we want them to have any meaning at all.
Adolescence, of course, is melodrama - great, leaping jags of jubilance and doubt. "American Teen" sticks around through one senior year and captures several revolutions of the cycle. Burstein's primary subjects include Megan Krizmanich, a queen bee who doles out cruel social punishments while freaking out over her application to Notre Dame, and Colin Clemens, a lantern-jawed jock whose easygoing nature hides a crushing anxiety over winning a basketball scholarship. (Each missed free throw represents his future dribbling away.)
There's Jake Tusing, a quiet marching-band geek - one of the legions of invisible kids who pass through four years of high school unnoticed by their peers. And there's the movie's break-out starlet Hannah Bailey, a square peg described by other students as "alternative," "creative," and (most accusingly) "strange." Hannah's no fool; she wants to head for California and film school as soon as possible.
First, though, she has to survive getting ditched by her boyfriend early in the school year, a catastrophe that sends the girl into emotional free-fall. Terrified of being seen as weak, she stays home from school until her diploma's in active danger; even then her friends have to pry her out of the car. Yet by spring Hannah's natural high spirits are back, and she's being wooed by one of Colin's jock friends, a deliciously weird inversion of the social order.
And so it goes: Colin learns not to be a ballhog; Jake courts a freshman girl and tries to solve the mystery of women (good luck, my friend); Megan throws her weight around and whines when it comes back to hit her in the face. Burstein includes the kids' text-messages and e-mails in boxes at the bottom of the screen, and one particularly ugly incident finds Megan gleefully spamming the entire student body with a nudie cell-phone photo that one of her rebellious minions has sent to a boyfriend. For all practical purposes, the victim's life is over until graduation.
"American Teen" watches these developments with uninflected faux-realism, but the choices and the shaping are in the editing. Burstein gives each kid his or her glib dramatic arc - even subsidiary characters like Ali, a dim little suck-up who finally snaps against Megan's reign of terror.
It's a far too tidy approach but oddly watchable: The movie formalizes story lines the students already impose on each other. High school cliques may be inherently fascistic, Burstein implies, but how would you know who you are without them? How would you know who you don't want to be?
The filmmaker's sympathy keeps her from challenging her subjects or the way they see themselves, though. Burstein indulges her teens and protects them: Despite some discreet drinking, onscreen partying is kept to a minimum. Teachers are a droning background presence, just as most kids see them.
Parents are another matter. Almost to a man and woman they lay expectations on their children that ignore who those children are. One of the more gasp-inducing scenes comes when Hannah's troubled mother, desperate to dissuade her daughter from moving to California, tells her, "You're not always going to get what you want. You're not special."
There's an awful truth there: Maybe Hannah will turn out just to be like everybody else. Maybe she'll even be happy with that. But who says such a thing to a young girl on the threshold of her future? In its shallow way, "American Teen" wonders how kids ever get free of the previous generation's disappointments.
The short-term answer is that they put on a show - just like Mickey and Judy used to do - but now the show is their lives. The movie lets them be the stars they're already convinced they are.