The Brunch Club
Film examines the teen condition … again
A chronicle of five seemingly disparate teens in the Heartland, American Teen portrays the day in and day out of the senior school year of a princess, a jock, a heartthrob, a rebel and a loser. Sound familiar?
American Teen is obviously informed by the oeuvre of John Hughes, and if nothing else it plays as a meta-companion digging beneath the Hollywood cotton candy of the iconic characters and revealing them as they would exist in the real world.
Here, the princess is an ambitious virago who displays absolutely no empathy, the jock is a selfish prat who hogs the ball, the heartthrob is as shallow as his mirror, and the loser is a creep with a morbid streak of self-loathing as thick as the acne blossoms on his cheeks. The only individual who seems geared to establish any sort of empathy from the audience is the rebel—obviously director Nanette Burstein’s adopted analog in the project.
Lively, creative and harboring dreams of escaping Warsaw, Ind., for the beaches and palm trees of San Francisco (she’s also a little naïve), Hannah is the center that holds the documentary together. If anything keeps the project compelling, it’s following the grind of Hannah dealing with heartbreak and the clueless advice of her parents, and the desire to see her graduate into a world that might recognize her worth, rather than her manic-depressive mother’s tossed anchor to the drowning girl.
As a documentary, American Teen doesn’t have all that much new to observe about the teen condition—the kids on display here act the way teens have always acted: getting drunk, hooking up and getting dumped. Sure, the tools have been finessed, so they can text a Dear Jane memo rather than passing a note, but same results. And though mileage may vary, I never really bought that the proceedings weren’t scripted to a large degree.
If nothing else, American Teen works on the level of cinema verité, a sort of Blair Witch Breakfast Club, without the spookies. But, then, sometimes the high-school hallways are spooky enough—as it was, as it is, and as it will ever be.