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An Early Review Of AMERICAN TEEN From The Full Frame Festival In Durham, NC!!

Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I’m really looking forward to this documentary based on all the early buzz I heard about it from Sundance this year. And I love the poster that Film School Rejects posted:

Thanks to this guy deciding to see it at a recent festival in North Carolina, we’ve got a new review of it today, and it’s a good read.

Hey Harry - Long time, first time… I had the privilege to attend a screening of American Teen, along with a brief Q&A with the director Nanette Burstein after the show. The screening was being held at the Full Frame Documentary film festival in Durham, NC, and after reading a few reviews on this site following its Sundance premiere, I thought it’d be cool to catch it before its planned summer release. My girlfriend and I zipped over to Durham, hopeful to be able to snag a pair of tickets. From the line-up I could tell that this was easily the most recognized of the films playing (if only due to its Sundance status and advance hype) so I was unsure if there would even be tickets available. I was in luck, in that they decided to screen the film in a high school auditorium that seated around 1100. After being given the obligatory “No recording devices and all phones off speech” by the staff along with a plethora of determined police officers, we were shepherded in. All told, there was a good sized crowd on hand, although the auditorium was not full by any means. Give or take, around 6-700 folks. A brief introduction by a festival coordinator, complete with the promise of the aforementioned Q&A to follow kicked things off, immediately followed by the film. As to the movie itself… As has been mentioned, American Teen takes place in a predominantly white Indiana High School over the course of a single year. The movie focuses on 4 teenagers all of whom could be summed up with your prototypical HS caste groupings… the jock, the geek, the mean-spirited popular girl, and the artsy outcast. What’s interesting about the decision to focus the film around these characterization models that have been done to death in previous films, shows, etc., is that Ms. Burstein stated afterwards that she wanted, essentially, to contextualize these universal motifs that we see in different mediums of entertainment that tackles teenage life. Her goal was to add complexity to these similar one-dimensional stories that we are repeatedly witnessed to. For instance, in the story thread with the Jock, there’s your sub-theme of triumph over adversity on the basketball court, and the expectations that athletic glory have both on him, his parents, and the town. For the geek, it’s your thread of the shy underdog trying to shake off his insecurities to win the heart of the girl. And so on so forth. So was she successful in bringing a breath of fresh air to these time-tested themes? Yes and No. For the positives… the film is really at its best during the scenes of teenage interaction. There’s obviously a cognizance of the camera and the determination to perform, quote/unquote, in front of the camera, but what the kids have trouble hiding is their reactions to one another, the awkward pauses or stilted dialogue. In moments of dramatic tension, you can see the characters struggle to stay cool under pressure and react with that sense of ironic detachment. But more often then not they fumble as their insecurities take over and often results in a toss-out of a non-sequitur. During a scene where the geek’s freshman girlfriend (Although he’s a senior… gotta love Indiana!) is breaking up with him, he responds to the silence by resting his acne-filled faced on a table, picking it back up, wiping the table and then responding “The table’s all greasy now.. you know, because of my face.” The power of this film is in the awkwardness. All of the characters are filled with their own insecurities, fear of connection, maturity issues, etc. And there are moments of the film where that really resonates through, which is when the movie shines at its best. Now for the cons…this is a movie that is really a festival film. And when I say that, I don’t necessarily mean it as an insult, but rather as a simple fact on the state of our cinematic desires. A movie on teenage life could fall on either side of the pendulum… on one side you have gritty authenticity and realism, ala with Larry Clark/ Gus Van Sant stylistic overtures... on the other side, you spruce it up, glamorize it, keep it shallow and fun and you’re looking at something that’s ready made for MTV. Unfortunately, although it exhibits qualities of both, it leans more to the shallow and fun side. For one, Ms. Burstein made the regrettable decision of using animation within her film. After each character goes on a long-winded monologue about their own personal desires and fantasies, the movie inter-cuts with an animated sequence which is helpful enough to spell the fantasy out for the audience in a colorful, digestible way. I would personally like to start a movement to stop animation in documentaries. From Michael Moore to Morgan Spurlock, animation has become a trademark in the documentary. Why, for fuck’s sake?! It’s a lazy, irritating device that panders to an audience. Here, the animation says. I know you’re incapable of sitting through ninety minutes of reality, so I’ll keep things entertaining for you with a shitload of wonderfully bright colors that offers an engaging synopsis of what I’m trying to say! Fucking stop! Unless you’re doing a film on Matt Groening or on the origins of Anime, leave the goddamn animation out. In this instance, it’s distracting and takes you away from the flow of the story. Secondly, there is some rather ham-fisted narration throughout, all spoken by the main characters. And while Ms. Burstein did say after that the narration came as a result of her one-on-one times with each of the four kids, it does come off as rather snarky and a little too self aware for it’s own good. The movie is also not above exploiting characters for the sake of a cheap laugh. Parents, for instance, get a really raw deal in this movie. Nearly all of them are portrayed as goofy, bumbling idiots, who don’t know their asses from their brains. They dole out plenty of advice, (in one case, while wearing an Elvis suit) although it’s presented in such as way as to be taken as the sort of parental tripe that every teen is subjected to and promptly ignores. Conjunctly, the music in this film becomes a bit tiresome. During scenes of dramatic heft, we predictably get the loud crooning of some mellow-alt singer/songwriter while the camera closes in on one of the teens looking pensively into the distance. Its times like those that I have trouble distinguishing the film from bottom-of-the-barrel shit like Laguna Beach. With all of that said, and despite some of the questionable editing techniques and devices that the film employs, it is an enjoyable romp through the teenage existence. (At least from a white, middle-class perspective). According to Ms. Burstein, the entirety of the film did happen naturally and on-camera, expect for one crucial scene where the artsy girl received a break-up text from a guy…she evidently wasn’t there when the text came through, so they recreated that one scene. It is a movie to enjoy with a large group, as the laughs and fun-factor quotient are amped up. That being said, if you are looking for a serious, sociological study of teenage life, you’ll have to look elsewhere. But in a movie where a character’s private thoughts are channeled through an animated recreation of The Legend of Zelda, what more can you really expect? If you use this, please call me Watterson’s Disciple.
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