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American Teen: Perfectly Real

by DeAnn Welker July 24, 2008 9:43 am
<i>American Teen</i>: Perfectly Real

I know it's a bold prediction, but I believe American Teen is the movie that's singlehandedly going to make documentaries cool again. Oh, right, they never were cool in the first place. Maybe in a certain geeky/political Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock crowd, they were considered cool, but not in general. Well, if people give it a chance, American Teen really could change that.

Of course, the first question cynics should ask themselves is whether they like reality TV at all. Because, at least when it comes to candid reality shows (rather than competitive ones), they basically operate under the same auspices as a documentary. It's not something scripted to entertain you; it's footage put together into a story to entertain (and sometimes enlighten) you.

American Teen is being touted as a sort of Breakfast Club meets Juno meets Napoleon Dynamite. That's all well and good, and the comparisons are sort of apt, except for one thing: American Teen is better than all of them.

American Teen director Nanette Burnstein followed a handful of high school seniors from Warsaw, Indiana, during their final year of high school. She focused primarily on a star basketball player (Colin Clemens), a popular princess (Megan Krizmanich), a cool social outcast (Hannah Bailey), and a band geek (Jake Tusing). A heartthrob (Mitch Reinholt) feels like he wasn't part of the intended cast, but he's been as much a part of the promotion as anyone else.

The movie focuses on the students' struggles and their daily lives -- from trying to get into college to finding a date for prom to vandalizing houses and paying the price when caught.

I could list at least a dozen reasons that American Teen is better than the films previously mentioned: fewer absurd/unrealistic scenarios, less ridiculously clever language, more real human emotions (since we're working with real people, that makes sense, no?), more compelling storylines. But there's one thing that raises American Teen from just another teen movie into something truly memorable.

No, it's not that it's a documentary. And, no, it's not even that there's a wonderful popular-boy-falls-for-outcast-girl storyline (how many times have filmmakers tried to script that exact scenario? I can't even count that high). The highlight of the movie, is the aforementioned outcast girl, Hannah Bailey. She's a vivacious, vivid, lively, depressive, beautiful human being who is her own worst enemy, but who ultimately can't stand to let anything get in the way of her dreams.

Hannah is the type of character you root for with your whole heart. You love who she loves. You hate the people who hurt her. There aren't many scripted characters that elicit such strong emotional reactions, and maybe part of the reason for that is knowing she's real. Her story isn't something dreamed up in a factory to make a movie to sell to teens. Her story is her life. And you will feel lucky to get to share in it. (Even if you will get pissed off at a couple of mean boys, and possibly her parents, and school administrators for not understanding her as completely as you'll feel like you do.)

What's so magical about this movie, a documentary, is that it captures so many of those moments that you've been watching in teen movies for years -- only this time, free of the constraints of a script that's trying to create a nice, pat fairy tale, it's perfectly real.

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