Starring: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Geoff Haase
Directed by: Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”)
Written by: Nanette Burstein (“In the Name of the Emperor”)
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Nanette Burstein’s new documentary “American Teen” is the cinematic equivalent of a magician’s smoke and mirrors. You want to believe what you see, but it’s far too implausible for everything to be authentic. Burstein is the metaphorical man behind the curtain, and she allows herself to be caught whether she wanted to or not.
In “American Teen,” Burstein travels with a film crew to the Midwest where she sets up her cameras in a small-town Indiana high school. There, she chooses her cast based on which high school seniors seem to have the most to offer based on their personalities. Of the five kids she handpicks, it’s evident which ones hit closer to home for Burstein. The others are left to fill stereotypical gaps in the storyline. Like any other feature film where cliques run rampant and teenage hormones get the best of everyone, Burstein packages it, and does it with a little more bubble wrap than we would have liked. It’s hard to see what’s really behind the blurriness unless you slice through its protective cover.
Where her story shines is when the cameras focus on Hannah Bailey, the “artsy” girl of the cast who feels out of place in her hometown of Warsaw. It might be because Burstein herself was once this girl 20 years ago and can sympathize with her, but the connection causes the film to become unbalanced, favoring Hannah over the other teens (the jock, the princess, the geek and the heartthrob).
Even then, real footage captured seems so edited to the point that we feel Burstein could possibly be taking everything she witnessed out of context. There are always instances where cameras are rolling at the most opportune time. If they weren’t the story couldn’t progress. Since they are, you wonder if a percentage of it was recreated.
Playing out like an episode of “The Hills,” with smarter, more interesting, and less attractive boys and girls, there is a reality-show impression left behind by “American Teen” that leave a bad taste. It’s hard to tell how these students would have acted if the cameras were off instead of starring in their own personal “E! True Hollywood Story.” There probably would have been just as much drama, but Burstein’s tricky third-person perspective could have been avoided.