Sunday, August 10, 2008

"American Teen" is an upbeat docudrama about senior year in a midwestern high school


American Teen”, directed by Nanette Burstein, is a digital video documentary following several teenagers through their senior year at an Indiana high school. It was made for A&E but has a theatrical release from Paramount Vantage.

The school is Warsaw Community High School, a rambling structure with a large circular cafeteria, and more yellow school busses lined up than ever, in a “red state” middle class town. This is the heartland, the Midwest (except we forget how far East Indiana actually is).

“The Kids” are Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Geoff Haase, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reimholt, Jake Tusing, and Ali Wikalinska. The names remind one of how the American Midwest was, more than a century ago, settled largely by immigrants from central and Eastern Europe, and immigration even in past eras provided its own history and controversy. So, merely by being a high school senior you get to be in the movies (one of the girls wants to become a filmmaker).

It seems as if Colin generates most of the rooting interest. His family is of average means and he really needs that basketball scholarship. Without basketball, he would need to join the military to afford college, even in state, and he says he doesn't want to be paid to kill people. He is one of the most likable, but generally all the kids in the film generate interest in the audience. No one demonstrates a proclivity for "senioritis" (and later the college admission letters come into play for several families). The students may have been hand-picked for this movie as a cross section, but they the director had to pick students that the audience would bond with. One of the girls suffers from depression because of a family tragedy, and is in danger of suspension because of absences; she pulls through. Jake is the geek, and is uncertain about the whole senior prom thing. (The film does not show much computer tinkering, but it could have; remember that elsewhere in the country teenagers have done things like reverse-engineer iPhones.) But his older brother (in the Army) gives him an initiation trip to Mexico just when he turns 18. That sets up his own romance. Mitch may be the most serious and winds up at Indiana University (best known nationally for its music school, an opportunity not used in the film) studying, as I remember, pre-med.

The film shows very little classroom time, and just a little more of the administrators, one of whom has to administer discipline for t-p-ing a student’s house and spray-painting an unacceptable epithet on a house window. (It’s not clear why from the film, but one girl says, it will just wipe off.) One government teacher has told students that adult life in the United States constitutes a competitive "meritocracy." I guess the teacher had never assigned Charles Reich's book "The Greening of America."

For a few episodes, the film uses some interesting animation, with the characters drawn well and accurately, even to the point of including teen acne in one case. There is a nightmare animation scene going down corridors and returning. In the playful (live) scenes, there are some curious techniques, such as the camera's starting at the feet and letting one guess the character for a second. The rooms of a couple of the characters (Geoff and Jake particularly) are interesting with their knick-knacks, to say the least.

“The Kids” look practically grown, but, biologists tell us that their brains still have 6 more years to finish pruning and maturing physiologically; that’s a third of the time they have lived already!

The film did bring back memories of my own (better) experiences as a substitute teacher in northern Virginia. Yes, I would have be glad to have had any of them in one of my classes.

It also brought back memories of my own senior year at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA, where I graduated June 1961. I did not go to the senior prom but went on an expedition to Mount Washington, New Hampshire "instead."

The climax of the movie includes a basketball game (with Colin) and a finish worthy of CWTV’s “One Tree Hill”, and a graduation ceremony, with Elgar’s famous march.

This film could be compared to HBO's “Baghdad High” (reviewed Aug 4) and “Hard Times at Douglas High” (reviewed June 23), which present high school for much more disadvantaged populations.

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