The kids are all right in angsty documentary

by Glen Baity

It’s been a long summer. Who’s ready for a non-franchise, non-superhero inspired movie that will tug at your heartstrings, make you laugh and restore (or reaffirm) your faith in the nation’s youth? If your hand is in the air, report directly to American Teen, a buzz magnet from this year’s SundanceFilm Festival that, just this past week, finally tiptoed onto a single local screen at the Grande in Friendly Center. The documentary follows a group of Warsaw, Ind. high school students through their senior year, chronicling the highs, lows, scandals and heartbreaks that make up teenage life in a small, boring town. There’s Colin, the gifted but selfish basketball player who needs a scholarship to get into college; Megan, self-styled queen of the school and a professional level manipulator; Mitch, who makes the girls swoon; band geek Jacob, who does not; and Hannah, a troubled free spirit on the verge of expulsion.

The one unifying factor in all their lives is the uncertain future looming just over the horizon, and the film focuses on how each teen prepares for what’s coming. It’s a portrait of young people drunk on possibility, and it’s impossible not to get swept up. If you’re out of high school, you’ll see something of your past self in at least one of these kids. For me it was pizza-faced Jacob, who plays the clarinet, can’t get a girl and funnels his frustration into his Nintendo. In one particularly resonant moment, he makes an off-hand attempt to explain his abject bashfulness. “I wasn’t a shy kid,” he says, “but then middle school started.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Indeed, a lot of what these kids go through has been endured by teenagers since the genesis of high school itself, which is part of what makes American Teen so compelling — you can’t watch it without being reminded of your own teen years. There are also millennial-specific trials, such as one girl’s hard lesson on why it is unwise to e-mail topless pictures of oneself. The film’s marketing overtly boxes these kids in (the accompanying website identifies the five leads by their social clique). It isn’t entirely disingenuous — throughout American Teen, the kids do this to themselves. Jacob is a nerd. Colin’s a jock and Mitch is his jock buddy, Megan’s the queen bee and Hannah’s the square-peg rebel. Like pretty much all kids, they’re never unaware of the social hierarchy, and they talk about it with a sense of inevitability in the same tone their parents might use when discussing gas prices or the weather. But American Teen stands out when it peeks behind the labels to find the souls underneath. It turns up all sorts of unexpected, disarming moments: In one poignant scene, Colin breaks down in tears when he blows a game in front of a few college recruiters, thinking he’s just lost his only hope for a college education. Hannah lives with her grandmother, but is basically on her own and lives in fear of inheriting her mother’s manic depression. Even snippy, shallow Megan has a painful story to tell, one that goes a long way toward explaining why she is the way she is. The film is spliced with animated vignettes that illustrate the kids’ inner lives in stunning detail. Meanwhile, Burstein’s camera captures a group of young adults positively brimming with hope and anxiety, who define themselves by how others see them, then beat themselves up for doing it, and who are constantly trying not to buckle under some very adult pressures. All of these kids seem uncommonly aware of the possibilities before them, which is probably their most attractive quality. At one point Hannah, a budding filmmaker, talks about wanting to “make movies that people will remember for their whole lives.” Simply witnessing her raw sincerity, her insistence that she absolutely has to do this, and do it her way, is inspiring. It’s one of many, many moments in this film that make you want to stop everything and give these kids a hug. This is a wonderfully crafted, compulsively watchable movie that invests you fully in the very real lives of a group of vibrant characters. If “Laguna Beach” snatched your hope for this generation, American Teen will return it to you in spades.

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