Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) spent ten months filming four high school seniors and their friends in Warsaw, Indiana, to make American Teen, a documentary that explains why high school hasn’t changed since High School. Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary focused on institutionalized rituals. Burstein illustrates the continuing effect of those rituals on the teens’ relationships with family and friends. Her Millenials run the same obstacle course of parental interference, outdated curricula, and a social hierarchy built on homecoming queens and star jocks that Wiseman’s Baby Boomers had to scale in order to graduate. Burstein chose her subjects from among teens who volunteered and who may live to regret their decision: One breaks up with his girlfriend by sending her a text message, and another e-mails a topless picture of her friend to everyone in her address book. It’s high school, just the way you remember it.
If Burstein’s subjects appear stereotypical, her purpose in choosing them was obviously to explore the complexity behind the roles they either assign to themselves, or they were consigned to play, in the boot camp of conformity that is high school. The nerd, Jake Tusing, is an irrepressible romantic whose search for a soulmate seems surprisingly out of character. Colin Clemens, a basketball star; Megan Krizmanich, the daughter of a prominent surgeon; and Hannah Bailey, the artsy outcast who lives with her grandmother, are from very different social and economic circumstances, but what they have in common lies at the core of Burstein’s insight into the teens’ lives. They have parents who try to limit their horizons or relive their own lives through their children. In Burstein’s eyes, it’s the parents who are to blame for many of the pressures the teens grapple with, and for the unchanging atmosphere of high school.
Indiana was a conscious choice, and a good one: As anyone who has traveled the contiguous 48 knows, Warsaw is actually far more emblematic of the United States than, say, New York City or Los Angeles. Warsaw did present Burstein with a few challenges, mostly that all her subjects are white. Megan is from very comfortable economic circumstances, while Hannah lies at the other end of the spectrum and has the additional stigma of mental illness—her mother is bipolar. These differences distinguish the teens’ individual experience of high school and their aspirations for the future. Hannah wants to get out of Warsaw at any cost to attend a San Francisco film school she’s read about. Megan wants to get out, too, but for her the prestige of acceptance to Notre Dame holds the promise of an Antipodean escape.
Burstein, who cut 1,000 hours of footage to an excellent 95-minute documentary, catches the teens’ parents in controlling and often psychologically damning moments with their offspring. They are not just reliving their own youth through their children; this time around, they’re determined to get it right, even if they have to suppress their children’s desires and replace them with their own. Altering the crucible of high school would be too unsettling to the re-enactment of their own youth, so the parents also reinforce the educational system’s outmoded ideas of what constitutes success after high school. It’s clear from the glimpses we have of the teens’ lives at school that teachers and administrators simply perpetuate the status quo, upholding what they and the parents view as solid American values.
The Academy-nominated filmmaker (On the Ropes) observes the four seniors and allows them to speak directly to the camera. Hannah’s liberal ideals clash with the local culture, but her mother makes desperate attempts to keep her in Indiana. Megan is a brat, but when she slumps in a chair in front of her father’s desk, anxious over whether or not she will be accepted to his alma mater, she’s just a kid with a controlling father. He tells her she shouldn’t want Notre Dame for his sake, but in the same sentence reminds her that her two brothers haven’t found fault with it. Megan’s sister wasn’t accepted, and she later committed suicide. Colin’s father, a celebrated high school athlete, won’t pay for college, insisting that his son win a sports scholarship, the implication being that he wants Colin to achieve what he only aspired to. In each situation, punctuated with animated sequences that reflect the teenagers’ fantasies, Burstein recalls the bittersweet experience of being 18.
For some of Burstein’s teens, on the brink of that archetypal journey to selfhood, the road will eventually lead back to Indiana. It is the untrammeled paths, the farthest point from Indiana and all that it represents, that Burstein had trouble uncovering in American Teen.In fact, only Hannah aspires to it, and the filmmaker devotes the final image of the documentary to her. Notre Dame is not to be dismissed, nor is a sports scholarship, nor the teenage romance Jake hopes to nurture, but those are roads marked by the constricting tread of our predecessors. Hannah’s path promises transformation.
Critic: Maria Garcia
Distributor: PARAMOUNT VANTAGE
Running Time: 95 mins.
Production: An A&E IndieFilms presentation of a Firehouse Films and Quasiworld Entertainment production, in association with 57th and Irving.
Film Width: 1.85
Sound: Dolby Digital (AC-3), DTS, SDDS
Hannah Bailey | Colin Clemins | Megan Krizmanich | Jake Tusing | Geoff Haase | Mitch Reinholt | Ali Wikalinska
Director(s) Nanette Burstein
Writer(s) Nanette Burstein
Producer(s) Nanette Burstein | Eli Gonda | Chris Huddleston | Jordan Roberts
Executive producer(s) Patrick Morris | Molly Thompson | Nancy Dubuc | Lisa Pugliese | Robert Sharenow
Director(s) of photography Wolfgang Held | Laela Kilbourn | Robert Hanna
Edited by Nanette Burstein | Mary Manhardt | Tom Haneke
Music by Michael Penn