Friday, August 8, 2008

American Teen

“You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princesss, and a criminal.”
-The Breakfast Club

The documentary by Nanette Burstein follows a small group of diverse high school students from Warsaw, Indiana, over their final year through graduation. Burstein’s chosen subjects run the gamut from the high school basketball stud trying to land a scholarship and the most popular (and nastiest) girl in school, to your typical band geek and the lonely art student who wants nothing more than to get as far from Indiana as possible.

Events over this year include each of the subjects dealing with relationships, both romantic and platonic, fears about the future, the awkwardness of adolescence, bad choices, and a cruelty that can only be found in American high schools and Turkish prisons.

Although all of the subjects are given equal time the two young ladies of the piece stood out for me. It’s hard to imagine a sweeter and more compasionate character than Hannah Bailey who is constantly disappointed by family, friends, and the boys she falls for. Her fears about fitting and not being seen as too soft almost destroy her, but thankfully her passion for life and willingness to pursue here dreams far away from home sustain her through even the most difficult times.

If there’s an anti-Hannah it’s got to be Megan Kriszmanich, the cool cruel girl who will shock you with her selfishness and the lengths she will go to get revenge on those she feels have wronged her. However Burstein is careful to show Megan’s insecurities, pressures, and past tragedies, which shape her into the character that at times even her best friends can’t stand (and don’t dare cross). Although the other stories involving the two jocks and the band geek each give the film different flavors, for me, it’s these two contrasting tales which capture the all the beauty and beastliness of high school.

Bustein gives us and engaging documentary that looks deep into the lives of her subjects. A year of footage couldn’t have been easily edited into a final cut, and at times the flow and timeline of the story seems to jump around a bit, but the end result is some remarkable moments captured on film. The pressures these students put on themselves, and have thrust on them by family members (well intentioned or not) is something many parents could use as a cautionary tale. And for those still struggling in high school, there’s a lesson for you as well - whether you’re the band geek or the most popular girl in school you can survive high school and move on to pursue your dreams.

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