12 August 2008

At the movies: American Teen.

A frustrating and intermittently fascinating experience that shows us just how deeply Reality Programming concepts of character have become ingrained in our culture, American Teen is exactly the slice of modern life one would expect from the post-Real World youth of this country- media-savvy, solipsistic, and with archetypes imprinted at the genetic level. Warsaw, Indiana is portrayed as the absolute center of the U.S., but what it serves the viewer could have (and would have) originated the same regardless of filming location.

Megan, a sociopathic rich girl who rules with an iron fist and wantonly flouts the law when she doesn’t get her way, is one of the film’s two engines. The other, Hannah, is an outsider girl with dreams of artistic achievement and a future in filmmaking that is nearly derailed by a bad breakup and an emerging psychological disorder. The two couldn’t be less alike in temperament, but the message we get from the way the film sees them is that divas run the show, and interest in others is apparently uncinematic. The three male characters who complete director Nanette Burstein’s quintet of the modern American experience, two jocks and a socially maladjusted introvert, all explicitly deal with issues of relating to peer groups and struggle with finding the best fit for the individual in society. They provide occasional spice for the story, but are minimized to pack in more of the girls’ exploits. Is this really all that Burstein could get? There are so many untold stories here that I have to distrust the film- there is no new ground broken here, merely reiterations of the same kind of solipsistic celebrity worship that comprises the majority of our nonfiction television programming.

What of Alli and Geoff, Megan’s adjuncts who break free of her power and find their own thing? They exist in this film only to be defined by Megan. Similarly, the Hannah/Mitch romance is the most fascinating thing in the whole film, and is allowed to go nowhere because of Burstein’s investment in Hannah. We’re not allowed to see things from Mitch’s perspective, which in and of itself could have been remarkable; imagine the navigations a popular kid has to make when trying to break free, and the sanctions brought down on him by his own peer group that compel him to break up with her (via text message; harsh). Instead, he practically disappears from the film once he can no longer be defined in terms of Hannah.

Colin, the star basketball player, is going through a very interesting process (headed either for a basketball scholarship or the Army, as his father puts it), learning to stop hogging the ball and to become more team-oriented. We’re meant to believe that the film, and metonymically, society, approve and feel this approach worthwhile, but instead we’re treated to more “Me Me Me” from Megan and Hannah. Mixed messages thus define American Teen.

Maybe Burstein was aiming to accurately represent what she saw in the modern teenage experience, but even so, she and her crew are complicit in the commission of several violations of the law. If this were a hands-off documentary à la the work of Frederick Wiseman, that would be one thing, but the monstrous amount of backstory on this whole project that’s been bubbling up ever since Sundance has been painting a very different picture indeed. What American Teen does do, though, is hold the attention of contemporary High Schoolers, and that is no mean feat. The audience I saw the film with was around 95% High School-age students, and they were held rapt by this vision of ‘their own’ stories. I don’t know what to think of it- whether it’s an empty portrait of empty lives, or if it genuinely wants to raise consciousness and get at the heart of the contemporary teenager. Either way, I can’t move past it or assign it a simple qualitative rating.

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