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Alexandra DuPont Calls Bullshit On AMERICAN TEEN!!

'American Teen': FAQ (by Alexandra DuPont) ____ Q. What's the upshot? It's a documentary that claims to get deep inside the real lives of a bunch of Indiana teenagers. There are a few funny, cringe-inducing, and maybe even honest moments to be had. But the larger reality-show maniplulation that runs rampant through this doc fills me with an overwhelming desire to call bullshit. And so, "American Teen," I am totally calling bullshit on you. I don't think director Nanette Burstein is evil or lying or anything. In fact, I usually dig her stuff. She made the docs "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture" and this IFC reality miniseries called "Film School" about NYU film students getting their asses kicked that's completely worth your time. But "American Teen" is so slick, it feels staged even if it wasn't. I sort of got the vibe that Burstein didn't think we'd notice her shamelessly manipulative editing -- which is nearly "The Hills"-level in manufacture -- or that all of these "unguarded," unscripted moments are happening while cameras are stuck in the kids' faces. Did she fail to notice that all of us (especially her teen subjects) got wise to the machinations of reality TV at least a decade ago? There are spoilers from here on out. Q. What’s the story? Burstein spends an entire senior year with the Class of 2006 in Warsaw, Indiana. She shot something like 1,200 hours of footage from every possible angle (explaining why this doc looks feature-slick), then she whittled it down to focus on four main characters:

1. Hannah is the character on which many of you might develop a crush. She's a more grounded, real-life version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl -- she's quirky and sweet and smart and extremely cute, bursts into random fits of dancing, and dreams of escaping Indiana to go to film school in a big city. Boys dump her twice over the course of the school year (once via text message!). She also suffers from crippling depression and anxiety, to the degree that she skips school for a few weeks after she gets dumped. Burstein gives Hannah preferential treatment throughout the film -- and I suspect it's because the 38-year-old Burstein (who was probably working through all her 1980s high-school issues while making this) feels like she's looking in a mirror whenever she's filming this kid. (I also have to wonder if Hannah considered the long-term benefits of giving up her life as fodder for Burstein, who's deeply connected in the NYC film community.)

2. Colin is the school's basketball star. His father is an Elvis impersonator and one of those awful sports parents who stands in the bleachers and yells and sweats a lot. If Colin doesn't get a sports scholarship, he isn't going to college -- and the resulting pressure makes him hog the ball during games as he tries to sink more baskets and starts flubbing shots and just generally engages in flop-sweaty Epic Fail in front of the entire community.

3. Jake is an acne-scarred, video-game-loving, self-proclaimed geek who speaks in a monotone and comes off like the real-world version of Roast Beef from "Achewood." He really, really wants a girlfriend. He's completely awkward, but also kind of awesome, because he's amusingly self-aware and sports some serious sack, walking right up to girls and asking them out, damn the consequences. He also dates two or three women over the course of the school year, and I can't help but think the allure of the cameras surrounding him had something to do with that.

4. Finally, there's Megan, the richest and most popular girl in school. Burstein edits the film to make her seem so thoughtless and mean that I spent much of the movie fighting the urge to flip her the bird from my theater seat. Megan has some very real trauma and sadness in her past, and she's under tremendous pressure from her parents to get into Notre Dame. She has my sympathies for this. But while that may explain some of her friend-napalming behavior, it doesn't excuse it. Megan decides, on a whim, to destroy a friend named Erica's reputation by e-mailing a topless photo of her to the entire school, then crank-calls her and says stuff like, "You're sentenced to be a slut for the rest of your life." (A quick post-email interview of Erica as she fights to keep her dignity and composure through tears is one of the few truly honest and horrifying moments in the movie; I wish Burstein had followed this poor girl around a little more.) Megan also spray-paints the word "FAG" on the window of the house of a boy who fought for a prom theme she didn't like. She gets a slap on the wrist for this crime, then complains that she's the victim. Megan's father, who looks uncannily like an older Dwight Schrute, has the following reaction on the phone, BTW: "This was stupid, Megan. This was even stupider if you got caught." Nice parenting, guy! Megan has undoubtedly matured a great deal in the two years since this doc was shot, but she should be praying every day that "American Teen" fails to find an audience. I almost feel bad that a highlight reel of her misdeeds is about to be judged by hundreds of thousands of viewers, and will soon be available to millions more via the magic of digital versatile disc. If there isn't a message board somewhere where Megan is talking, Billy Mitchell-style, about how she was wronged in the editing suite, there will be soon.
Q. What's good? 1. The characters do draw you in -- but they draw you in like movie characters, or maybe reality-show contestants, not documentary subjects. Somehow, everyone magically gets a tidy little John Hughes ending for his or her story arc, and Hannah and Jake are well worth rooting for. (As we all know, kids considered hot and popular in high school don't necessarily make an impact outside that confidence-building caste system -- and I'm guessing wallflowers like Hannah and Jake will probably blossom into objects of Facebook desire wherever they end up moving, once the acne meds kick in.) 2. There are a handful of flashes of honest left-field dialogue worthy of Judd Apatow's "Freaks and Geeks," which is maybe the highest compliment I can pay:
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!








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