Beginning with its title, American Teen perpetuates the bogus notion that the Midwest — the heartland of the homeland — is the locus of real America, as if Oregon, New Jersey, and Hawaii are somehow less authentic than Indiana. What might a viewer in Sweden, Kenya, or Thailand make of this portrait of adolescence in the United States, based on only half a dozen specimens during their senior year at Warsaw Community High School, an institution in northern Indiana whose student body is almost entirely white and Protestant?
“I will never, ever belong here,” exclaims Hannah Bailey, an aspiring artist who longs to escape to California. Trapped for 95 minutes within the city limits of Warsaw, population barely 15,000, and within the blotchy skin of anxious young residents, one can sympathize with Hannah. Director Nanette Burstein (On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture) narrows her focus to the coming-of-age antics and rituals of a few Indiana teens, chosen apparently to represent contrasting types.
Colin Clemens is a jock whose principal concern is impressing college scouts enough to earn a basketball scholarship. Megan Krizmanich is wealthy, pretty, and cruel, a mean-spirited social monarch who might have dominated the clique of bullies in Heathers. Afflicted not only with acne and braces but also acute nerdiness, Jake Tusing spends most of his senior year in search of a girlfriend. Even when Mitch Reinholt, a popular athlete, surprises friends by taking up with the nonconformist Hannah, it seems like a shuffling of categories more than a Hoosier romance of Montague and Capulet. Burstein’s camera catches her teenage Warsovians at parties, in classrooms, and just hanging out, and she supplements their own statements with animated fantasy sequences.
In contrast to High School, Frederick Wiseman’s classic exercise in cinéma vérité, American Teen, which uses rock as musical punctuation, is obviously shaped to maximize drama. Burstein clearly gained the trust of her young subjects, so completely that they allowed themselves to be caught in embarrassing and even incriminating situations — Megan vandalizing a rival’s house, Hannah in panic attack before returning to class, Mitch text-messaging his decision to break up with Hannah. But it is hard to believe that the presence of the camera did not influence how these teens behaved, or even that Burstein did not either stage or at least carefully select and arrange certain scenes.
The scenes she selected portray a claustrophobic range of interests. In the Warsaw ghetto that is the film’s setting, proms and basketball games comprise the entirety of life. Megan obsesses over her application to Notre Dame, not out of any passion for higher education but because family members are alumni. When Colin’s father narrows his options to either a college scholarship or army enlistment, no one mentions what military service means at this historical moment; missing is any awareness that the United States is at war on two fronts. American Teen is an absorbing film whose characters are grotesquely self-absorbed. And Burstein remains so attentive to their personal crises that she neglects larger contexts. Warsaw, Indiana, she does not tell us, calls itself “the orthopedic capital of the world,” and viewers might have a bone to pick with the claim that its adolescents represent the species American teen. •