The documentary “American Teen” doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know about high school.
It can be a rough time, even if you’re pretty and popular. Kids divide themselves into cliques. They can be cruel to each other. Pressure can come from all sides — from parents, coaches, fellow students and mostly from within.
But the intimate way in which director Nanette Burstein tracks the lives of a group of seniors in small-town Indiana brings this familiar story to life, and it should make viewers feel nostalgic, regardless of how long it’s been since they walked those crowded, chaotic halls.
Burstein, who last co-directed the rollicking 2002 documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about movie mogul Robert Evans, takes on a much safer, saner subject matter here. She follows several familiar types at Warsaw Community High School in the year before they head off to college: a bossy blonde who runs the school; a basketball star hoping for a college scholarship; a lonely band geek who longs for a girlfriend; an artsy young woman who dreams of becoming a filmmaker; a heartthrob who falls for a girl outside the popular crowd.
If this sounds like a John Hughes movie you’ve seen a million times before — or all of them simultaneously — you’re right. One subplot is straight out of “Pretty in Pink.” The scrawny kid in the band could be Anthony Michael Hall in “Sixteen Candles.” The poster for “American Teen” even features the five young stars arranged in the same pose as the actors from “The Breakfast Club,” which is probably too cute for its own good.
They’re all so engaging, though, it’s hard not to get drawn into their daily dramas. They’re so smart and articulate about expressing their emotions, Burstein didn’t need to augment their stories with animated segments depicting their wildest fantasies. And except for some obvious staging on Burstein’s part, their ups and downs, doubts and dreams, all feel vividly real. Well, at least more real than anything you see on “The Hills.”
But it does help a great deal that, as on “The Hills,” these people are usually unafraid to be the brashest, ugliest and most vulnerable versions of themselves on camera. It makes for good theater — and it sets up some surprisingly deeper elements of their personalities by contrast.
Mean-girl Megan, a surgeon’s daughter who drives a Mercedes SUV, e-mails topless photos all over town of a classmate she perceives as her rival. But she’s also under tremendous stress to get into Notre Dame, alma mater of her entire family, and she tearfully recalls a recent tragedy that helps explain some of her more destructive behavior.
Good-looking Mitch seems like a good guy, too, when he starts hanging out with a smart, funny girl who’s ordinarily not his type, but you know he’ll eventually succumb to peer pressure when it’s clear she won’t fit in with the cool kids.
And the freethinking Hannah, probably the most intriguing figure of all with her fresh face and dark sensibilities, also falls into a prolonged funk after a bad break up of her own, one that threatens her ability to graduate.
Basketball star Colin, meanwhile, is a hero in a town (population 12,000) and a state where the sport is all-consuming. But when desperation sets in over getting a chance to play in college — or having to join the military and potentially head to Iraq — he turns selfish both on and off the court. (His dad, by the way, is an Elvis impersonator who insists that Colin’s life would be better if he’d just grab 12 rebounds a game.)
The one who will break your heart, though, is shy, pimply Jake. He has a room full of video games but no friends, and his attempts at asking girls out or even just finding a mercy date for the prom will make you cringe with sympathy and recognition. Thankfully, he also has a sense of humor, which seems to have fortified him: “I do love the ladies but the ladies do not love me,” he says with a wry smile.
The sweetness and insecurity Jake feels during this awkward time is relatable for anybody, but Burstein makes us realize we probably still have elements of all five of these kids in our own personalities today, whether we’d like to admit it or not.