Over the last five or six years, the entertainment industry has become absolutely obsessed with young people. Everywhere you look, there's a new movie or television show trying its best to get inside the minds of teenagers and unearth their hopes, fears, and motivations. Just think of the last year or two: we've had Juno, Superbad, High School Musical, Gossip Girl, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It's like filmmakers and network executives can't get enough of us and our supposedly wild shenanigans.
Capturing the real life of an American teenager? That's a tough assignment. But director Nanette Burstein thought she was up to the challenge with a slice of allegedly genuine teenage life in American Teen.
A documentary about—you guessed it—American teenagers, American Teen takes place in the small town of Warsaw, Ind., where a camera crew spent 10 months following a group of teenagers during their senior year at Warsaw Community High School. All the typical players are present: the jock, the nerd, the rebel, the princess. Marketed as a real version of The Breakfast Club, we follow these kids through the ups and downs of teenage life, through hook-ups and break-ups, tears and laughter, and it all feels more than a little trite. Burstein picked teens that fit into the stereotypical niches of high school life with the intention of breaking those stereotypes down, but she only leaves us wishing we had gotten a better look at the majority of teenagers who don't fit into the usual cookie-cutter roles.
Footage of school dances, basketball games, and awkward dates is interspersed with brief animated sequences, each of a different style, intended to give a visual representation of what is actually going on inside these kids' heads. The nerdy Jacob imagines himself as a hero in one of his video games, while depressed Hannah stumbles, lost, through a dark tunnel. It's an interesting concept, but doesn't really work in the context of a documentary.
Some critics seem to have really enjoyed this film, praising it for its raw emotion and uncensored portrayal of teenage life. But the people reviewing this film are, for the most part, adults. They may see something insightful and intriguing, but most teens' reaction to this film will be a simple, "Yeah, so?" Spreading rumors, vandalizing property, breaking up via text message—this happens every day in a teenager's world, and with almost frightening regularity. It's nothing we haven't seen before, only this time Burstein tries to show the deep and troubling inner trauma that causes teenagers to do these things. It's a commendable attempt, but the truth is that sometimes kids don't have a good reason. Sometimes they just do mean and stupid things, not because of a family tragedy but because they simply weren't thinking. Petty actions often come from petty motivations.
The problem with American Teen isn't that it's an inaccurate depiction of teenagers in America; in fact, the kids are pretty spot on. The problem is that no matter how familiar these kids may be to others their age, they are impossible to relate to. The documentary makes them seem like they're acting for the camera. Confused when the most popular girl in school vandalizes a classmate's house with a camera crew following her every move? That's because she normally wouldn't do it. Suspicious about the cameras capturing two ends of one phone conversation? That's because it's unrealistic. The events and emotions in the film may be somewhat true to life, but it feels like a performance rather than an honest portrayal, and that's not good documentary filmmaking.
Hopefully next time someone attempts to document the "real" life of an American teenager, they'll either get it right or do us all a favor and air it on MTV where it belongs.
Halley Corapi is a 17-year-old sophomore at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.