American Teen (PG-13)
3 1/2 stars out of 4
The poster for "American Teen" is a take-off on "The Breakfast Club," the '80s movie about five very different high-school kids who discover common bonds while sharing detention. The personalities of the five real-life teens in "American Teen" practically mirror the leads in "The Breakfast Club." There's the spoiled girl, the geek, the artsy outcast and two jocks but no Judd Nelson-inspired rebel.
Instead of just one fictional day, documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein set up camp in Warsaw, Ind., and chronicled the lives of the five principals for the entirety of their senior year. Two of them share a romance, but the remainder of the group has little to no contact with each other, which lends the film credibility, as high school cliques remain firmly entrenched within their respective packs and rarely have any kind of overlap or interaction.
One minor, slightly glaring flaw is with Burstein's choice of settings. Warsaw is a town that more resembles the complexion of America in the 1950s - not the present day. One of the peripheral subjects is black, but there are no Asian, Latin or Middle Easterners.
The movie was presented to the press and toured the festival circuit in early spring, and as a result, movie Web sites are stuffed with opinions, some pro but mostly con. Even though the movie misses the mark with its narrow and exclusive choice of settings, it is completely dead-on with the behavioral patterns of teenagers, something that surpasses skin color, class issues, faith, politics or even time. Those who don't pick up on the finer points are missing the more subtle, bigger picture.
Burstein's documentary often takes on the carefully constructed air of a feature film or a slickly produced reality TV show. The quality is almost too good and suggests staging, but the situations and their emotional fall-outs are simply too raw and unpredictable.
The spoiled girl starts out pristine and immaculate, but eventually sheds her metaphoric skin to reveal someone neither she nor we care for. She does have reasons for her actions, which are both good and bad, but more importantly, they are authentic. The same goes for the geek, who seems determined to self-sabotage not one, but two rare opportunities at romance.
One of the two jocks is a star basketball player whose pressures are enormous. Not even close to major college scholarship material, he's brow-beaten by his Elvis-impersonator father into either performing well enough to get a free ride or failing, ending up in Iraq and winding up as a statistic. His sub-plot is crushing, but can't hold a candle to the artsy outcast.
Of all the subjects, the artsy girl's sojourn is the most heartbreaking. Cute, but not gorgeous and full of life, she is a true free spirit and is incredibly magnetic. An artist and musician, we watch her go through two failed relationships and ultimately emerge a better, if not significantly scarred individual. Her story alone is worthy of its own live-action feature film.
The most alluring facet of Burstein's movie is the absence of the "where are they now" epilogues. We don't know where these kids ended up and while closure would be good, not knowing the outcomes is slightly better. When you're 18, you don't know what you're going to get or how you're going to get it. High school might seem like the end-all phase of your life at the time but then the real world kicks in and all bets are off. (Paramount Vantage)