American Teen


Prepare to be unshocked…

Kids today! On second thoughts, kill the exclamation mark, because there isn’t anything that jawdropping in Nanette Burstein’s documentary chronicle of a school year in the life of five teenagers in Warsaw, Indiana. The biggest surprise is how straight these kids are. On this evidence sex and drugs have made curiously little impact on the middle-American 17-year-old. Burstein tells us that Warsaw is “mostly middle-class, white and Christian”, which is largely self-evident and begs the question of why she chose it.

There’s no such ambiguity about the selection of the kids. She’s gone the obvious route. There’s the high school princess, Megan, who’s pretty and bitchy and has her eyes on the prize (think Reece Witherspoon in Election). There’s hunky basketball hero Colin and his teammate Mitch, square-jawed but not a bad guy when you get to know him.

Jake has acne and can’t let himself forget it – he’s pure geek. And then there’s Hannah, an arty, vulnerable kid who feels like there was a mix-up in the delivery room – she should have been born in New York or San Francisco, or anywhere but here. Didn’t John Hughes already make this movie? Except that in The Breakfast Club we learned to look beyond the stereotypes, whereas Burstein’s flashy, self-conscious film mostly reinforces them.

That said, once it gets its hooks in, it’s as irresistible as any reality show. These kids certainly aren’t shy in front of the camera. Megan allows herself to be filmed manipulating, lying to and harassing her so-called friends, almost as if she’s auditioning for Mean Girls 2 in her head. But what really lingers is the impression that these teens feel intense and debilitating pressure to live up to unrealistic expectations.

Tom Charity


“I’m a high school student, get me out of here!” Compelling but not especially insightful, this is like watching nine months worth of reality TV in an hour and a half. Parental discretion is advised: if you have teens, this won’t cheer you up.

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