a. Jake makes all sorts of Bill Haverchuck-esque pronouncements. When one girl dumps him, she hilariously says, "It’s not that I don't care, or whatever." b. We hear Colin's dad telling his son how proud he is of his star-athlete spawn -- and then the camera cuts back and we see that the dad is dressed in full fat-Elvis regalia. c. Megan has this wonderfully unguarded reaction to a letter from Notre Dame. d. And Hannah's unstable mother tells her daughter that she knows the dangers faced by young girls in big cities "because it's my HOBBY! You KNOW THAT!"3. The movie does a pretty fair (if surface-y) job capturing the way kids are constantly extruding their sensoriums these days with gadgets. Everyone's always talking to someone while also staring into a phone. Whole worlds are rocked via text message. Q. What's not-so-good? 1. I hated the way the kids' inner lives are illustrated by cheaply animated segments that are way too on-the-nose. Jake becomes a video-game character! Colin flies through the clouds dunking basketballs! And come on: Is visualizing Hannah's depression using a Tim Burton-ish animated puppet anything other than simplistic, reductive and condescending? 2. When did pasty, shaggy-haired dorks who look like overfed, under-exercised Jonas Brothers start getting the girls? Is this some post-video-game-culture development that I (thankfully) missed? 3. Back to the calling of bullshit: Nanette Burstein, I would LOVE it if you could answer the following questions:
a. Was your zeal to work through your own late-'80s high-school issues what led you to chainsaw the footage until you re-created "The Breakfast Club" with real kids? b. Do you fully understand how media-savvy your subjects are -- how they've grown up bathed in the shitty glow of reality TV, and how much they're playing to your cameras and loving the attention as a result? c. How do you react to the heated discussion on the "American Teen" IMDb message board by alleged students at the school about the actual level of "reality" in the film? Discussions there range from declaring the film "fake" to defending the film's veracity but also saying, and I quote, "Some stuff was planned" or "The most that they did was have them re-enact situations that already happened for filming purposes, errors in the tape, sound etc." d. How long did it take to set up those shots where Hannah, in the throes of depression, is staring meaningfully and perfectly into the distance at various bridges and riverbanks without looking at the camera? e. When did you capture the close-ups of particularly traumatizing phone chats and e-mails? Did you just sidle up to the kids as soon as they stopped crying? f. At what point would you attach the wireless mikes to these kids -- you know, the mikes that keep popping out of their butts during slapping matches and drinking games and big arguments and other "unguarded," emotionally extreme moments? g. Did you have to tell the kids to not look at the camera during each of the eight billion shots where they're staring moodily at nothing while lying on their beds? How about whenever you followed them into alcoves for top-secret discussions that they had to know could be shown to everyone later? h. Were the girls who hang out with poor, brave Jake only hanging out with him because there was a chance it would land them on a big screen? i. Is it wrong that I found it kind of appalling that adult filmmakers were merrily tagging along while Megan gets drunk with her friends, commits borderline hate crimes, and gleefully destroys another girl's reputation while basically swirling in a black hole of entitled narcissism? j. If you answered question (i) by saying you're "being objective" and "capturing what's real": Why, then, do I fail to get any sense of a larger noble mission from this doc? Why is "American Teen" ultimately a slight piece -- something I'd expect to see dumped on PBS except for the MTV-friendly music licensing? k. Is only revealing Megan's trumatic past after we've come to hate her kind of manipulative? l. Why does the movie's marketing and its precious Facebook page and its portentious "This Is the American High-Schooler Today" title suggest to me that you were basically exploiting these kids in the pursuit of some sort of mild mainstream controversy that might get you a blurb in Vanity Fair or yelled at by evil Bill O'Reilly or something else that might generate a little extra art-house buzz?_____ I know I'm reviewing a lot of stuff around the actual content of the movie -- the marketing, the possible subconscious intent of the filmmakers and the subjects (which I freely admit is complete speculation on my part). It's a completely un-credible way to write about a movie, I suppose. But the way "American Teen" tries to play the viewer sort of invites it. If you see the doc, you'll see what I mean. Finally, this is going to sound harsh, but bear with me: In the end, walking out of the theater, "American Teen" made me think once too often of those photos of traumatized school-shooting kids hugging and crying. Not because Burstein's blandly apolitical Indiana suburbanites had anything visited on them that even remotely approaches the unasked-for pain of a school shooting -- not at all. No, what "American Teen" made me think of was a school-shooting-aftermath photo I saw later -- where some photographer thought to go all meta and pull his or her camera back, revealing that the handful of kids hugging and crying were outnumbered by a vastly larger scrum of cameramen crowding around them, exploiting their grief for footage that could be skillfully cut into a musical montage to end the newscast. Ew. Warmest, Alexandra DuPont. AlexandraDuPont@yahoo.com Arm yourself to attack my critical judgment! It's easy and fun! Visit The (finally updated) DuPont Bibliography!