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'American Teen': Documentary Goes Beyond Yearbook Labels

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By Desson Thomson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 1, 2008

Those social bumper-sticker stereotypes we blithely attached to ourselves and others in high school -- "cheerleader," "jock," "nerd," "princess" -- can last forever if we're not careful.

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That's the powerful idea at the heart of "American Teen," Nanette Burstein's affecting documentary about Indiana high-schoolers that may sound like "Breakfast Club" banality but plays like American allegory. Her intimately textured exposé follows the story lines of five teenagers over the course of their senior year at Warsaw Community High School.

Producer-director Burstein has created a sort of Facebook-vérité that shows the vulnerability behind those stickers. No surprise, these students are infinitely more complex than their one-dimensional labels would suggest. And watching the young Midwesterners -- a nerd, a jock, a princess, a free spirit and a heartthrob -- as they grapple with their socially assigned roles, we are transported into philosophical reveries about our own experiences, no matter how far away from Indiana those experiences may have been. Racial diversity may be nonexistent in this story, yet after a recent screening of "American Teen," a predominantly African American audience burst into spontaneous applause. And though this reviewer didn't attend an all-American high school -- rather, an English boarding school -- the themes and interactions of these students resonate far beyond the halls of Warsaw High. (After all, 1970s England did not lack for its own share of jocks, heartthrobs and social bullies.)

"I guess that is what I am," says Warsaw senior Jake Tusing, referring to his geek status at school. Girls, he continues, "avoid me at all costs." At that early point in the movie, things for Jake couldn't seem bleaker. And his self-regard seems almost chillingly one-dimensional.

What makes "American Teen" (which took the directing prize at this year's Sundance festival) more than reductive is its appetite for surprising, illuminating revelation. For all his talk of being a loser, Jake pursues, almost quixotically, that one girl who'll finally hear the beating heart underneath his acne and social ineptitude. And despite rejections that would stagger most of us, he keeps up his mission. He's also a pretty witty guy. Nerd, he may seem to be most of the time, but nerd he is not.

Although Megan Krizmanich is a craven, manipulative princess among her peers, she's a far more vulnerable, engaging spirit at home. A scene in which, surrounded by family, she tearfully responds to the arrival of a crucial letter from the University of Notre Dame is one of the movie's most affecting moments. In the classroom corridors, she's all "Heathers." But here she moves us -- just when we thought we had her figured.

If there's a central character to whom we respond the strongest, it is surely Hannah Bailey, the free spirit determined to leave her conservative Christian town for the lure of California. Her aspirations are high -- she wants to make movies "that people remember forever." But she suffers romantic heartbreak after romantic heartbreak. (It may take me years to forgive Mitch Reinholt, the school's resident heartthrob, who dumps her -- by text message.) We feel almost as palpably for Colin Clemens, the movie's shy, good-natured jock, as he squares up for a free throw that will not only decide a crucial basketball game but, quite possibly, the difference between a basketball scholarship or a job pumping gas. It matters so much to him, it matters to us.

Burstein, who co-directed 2002's "The Kid Stays in the Picture," an unconventionally entertaining adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans's tell-all autobiography, injects a little fun into the proceedings. When Megan rapturously evokes the utopian world she imagines at Notre Dame, Burstein cuts to an animation sequence of cardboard-cutout figures holding hands in a bucolic academic setting. And when Jake describes a revenge fantasy in which he battles Mike, the studly kid who stole his intended girlfriend, we see him animated as a video-game modern knight, setting out for romantic battle. There's poignancy even in these interludes.

We are our cliches, this movie is telling us, and yet we are not. The choices we make, whether in high school or later years, amount to how much we stick to, or depart from, those reductive templates. We either grow or we don't.

American Teen (95 minutes at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking -- all involving teens.


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