Having just experienced graduation at our house, I'm intimately aware of the ordeal of surviving high school. As a result, the idea of tracking a group of small-town teens through the highs and lows of their senior year appears to be an intriguing, if not challenging, exercise in documentary filmmaking. Earning the trust of the adolescents and capturing real emotional honesty seems difficult regardless of how many cameras are rolling or how comfortable the students are with the crew. Especially when the subject matter is kids who've grown up with the drama of reality TV.
To begin with, the teenagers in this movie, like the fictionalized characters in Mean Girls, She's All That and even the quirky Napoleon Dynamite, are pigeonholed into cliques--the prom princess, the basketball jock, the artsy outsider, the band geek. These labels might make story telling easier but they do little to eliminate established stereotypes.
Fortunately, Director Nanette Burstein digs a little deeper into the lives of these Midwesterners, showing at least some of the struggles they all face. For Megan Krizmanich, maintaining her position at the top of the social hierarchy is taxing as she juggles hours of school commitments and status-maintaining activities with her not-always-loyal underlings. Colin Clemens is the high point maker on the hardwood but he carries the weight of winning to please the community boosters as well as secure his own future prospects on a college team. Often, the pressure to perform takes a toll on the team's other players, like Mitch Reinholt, who become spectators rather than participants on the court. Whether band geek (Jake Tusing), artsy outsider (Hannah Bailey) or part of the underdeveloped supporting cast in this film, it's evident that high school can be tough--regardless of one's social standing.
Parental expectations, either stated or implied, also come under the lens as adults express their hopes or goals for their graduating children along with their fears and concerns. However, many audience parents may be wary of this film that shows real teens discussing random sexual interactions, vandalizing property and engaging in unsupervised alcohol and cigarette use. Digitally obscured nudity, frequent strong language (some of which is bleeped out) and cyber bullying are also concerns that arise as the adolescents interact throughout the semester. As well, the film offers few, if any, immediate consequences for actions, although several of these teens engage in risky or irresponsible behaviors.
American Teen's peek at life in Warsaw, Indiana's community high school offers ample insights into the demands and difficulties of secondary school and is crammed with conversation starters for parents and teens. Yet for kids digesting this slice of American life on their own, the movie's carefully crafted depiction of high school life may not be the kind of example many families are looking for.