Teen spirits


By Jen Anderson

Local filmmaker exposes life inside a suburban high school

American Teen

Landmark Sunshine Cinema

143 E. Houston St.

(212) 330-8182, landmarktheatres.com

Preferring to forget that I was ever a socially inept kid with braces and an unfortunate perm just trying to survive high school, I found the experience of watching the documentary “American Teen” both riveting and mildly harrowing. Now an awkward adult, albeit with a better hairstyle, I cringed when arty Hannah tried to find someone to talk to at a party of popular kids, and later as nerdy Jake recalled the exact moment in middle school when he became shy.

To create “American Teen,” director Nanette Burstein filmed the class of 2006 of Warsaw Community High School, in Warsaw, Indiana, everyday for an entire school year. She followed Hannah and Jake, as well as popular Megan and basketball star Colin as they tried to solidify their college plans and personal identities. Unsurprisingly, documenting the daily dramas sparked flashbacks to her own high school years in Buffalo, NY.

“God, there are so many moments that brought me back to my teenage years,” the 38-year-old director wrote via e-mail from her Manhattan home while recovering from delivering her first child. “It happened all of the time. Like when Hannah is crying hysterically after her boyfriend of two years breaks up with her and she believes that her life is over, or when Jake, the geeky boy, feels so self conscious at the school dance surrounded by the popular kids, that he must flee from the room leaving his date behind; or when Hannah fights with her parents about wanting to move to California and become a filmmaker, and they are firmly against it—almost these exact scenarios happened to me at that age. So I was constantly feeling like I was reliving my teen years.”

Burstein finished her teens at NYU film school, where her senior thesis film, “On the Ropes,” about three young boxers in Bed-Stuy, was turned into an Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary. But she spent her high school years going from clique to clique trying to figure out where she wanted to belong.

She opted out of the promised land of popularity. “I realized that didn’t make me very happy. Many of the kids that I thought were my close friends, turned out not to be very good friends,” she said. “So I ended up leaving the popular crowd and just trying to be myself. At one point in my junior year I had a pink Mohawk, but even that wasn’t really me. Ultimately, I became more of the bohemian, arty type, like Hannah and that’s who I really was and still am today. But it took all four years of high school for me to discover and then feel comfortable expressing my real identity.”

When scouting a location for the film, Burstein wanted a town with only one high school, so that the students would have no social escape. She selected Warsaw because of the students she met there. Although early reviews have drawn comparisons between “American Teen” and “The Breakfast Club,” and Burstein admits she was inspired by John Hughes’s movies, she didn’t set out in search of specific stereotypes.

“I was looking for teenagers, each from a different social group or ‘clique’ and different economic background. I was also looking for students that surprised me—that undercut the stereotype or expectation. For example, Megan is the popular, super-confident ‘Queen Bee’ who seems to have the perfect life, but in fact she is dealing with a painful family tragedy and enormous pressure to get into a certain college. Her life is far from ideal and she is a very complicated girl,” Burstein said with compassion that many viewers may have difficulty mustering for Megan and her relentless superiority complex.

Burstein found all of the teenagers’ stories compelling. “They each desperately needed to accomplish something that year,” she said. “Colin needed to get a basketball scholarship, or he would not be able to afford college and his family then wanted him to join the military. Hannah was the fish out of water who needed to escape the Midwest to feel like she could fit in. Megan needed to get into a certain college in order to follow the family tradition. Jake, who didn’t have any close friends, needed to find a girlfriend so he could feel accepted and have the companionship he craved.”

Ever the New Yorker, Burstein said there was an added bonus to selecting Warsaw. “The town also had the best restaurants, which turned out to be a godsend in the year to come!”

Once she had gained their trust ,Burstein met with her subjects every morning to touch base. She respected her subjects’ boundaries, only filming with their permission. Fortunately for viewers, the teenagers grew so acclimated to the camera’s presence that they allowed the crew to tag along even during their less wise moments, so we don’t miss any of the pranks, adolescent infidelities or text messages.

The resulting film reflects the world of high school and beyond, where people are quickly judged based on superficialities such as athletic ability or bad skin. But Burstein shows us they’re all worth getting to know. The popular girl has depth and the artistic outsider has more self-assurance than people twice her age. “American Teen” shows us that the dreams of high school seniors aren’t as trivial as they seem. The decisions they make at seventeen will determine who they’ll be for decades to come. And they know it.