Directed By: Nanette Burstein
There’s a big difference between a “documentary” and a work of narrative fiction. Some filmmakers don’t know the difference, I hope. If they do know the difference then they are purposefully trying lie, to present a narrative work as a documentary, and if that’s the case then I mourn the future of documentary filmmaking. Some viewers have also seemingly lost the ability to tell the difference between a documentary and a mockumentary or some other form of “scripted reality”.
My goal with this brief rant isn’t to devalue the viability of scripted reality or “somewhat” documentary-like film, not in the least. I just want some honesty from filmmakers. If you’ve made a film that’s truly scripted reality and not a documentary in the truest sense, then admit it, call your project edgy and innovative, but don’t pass off your film as a true documentary.
American Teen is scripted reality and apparently many viewers don’t know that. They think that everything in the film is real, and that’s a sad statement considering what the filmmaker does to the “characters” as far as stereotyping them. The film follows a group of teens through a year of their lives as they go through the ups and downs of high school life. Each of the teens are edited into a shallow stereotype with a band geek, an artistic type who wants to be a filmmaker, a jock, and a popular attractive girl with a bad attitude. Even many of the pressures applied on these kids are straight out of bad movies with the jock being pressured by his father into winning a basketball scholarship and the nerd wishing for love but being unsuccessful at communicating with women.
What’s so painfully sad is that while some of the pressures are real, but not all teens live these stereotypical lives. There’s opportunity out there for a film like this to give some depth to modern teenagers and show the true individuality that exists in the world. With that said, the film does manage to touch on the influence of technology on teens with the use of online social networking and cell phones. One situation in particular feels like a real event and a second one is without a doubt staged. There are several other situations that are questionable too. They feel dramatic but they also come off staged. There may be some scenes that are real but due to so much filmmaker tweaking those scenes are smothered by all of the fakery.
It’s not all bad here. When the personalities of the teenagers come through and when things happen in the film without prompting by the director, the film actually gets interesting. It’s a tough thing to make character study type films as interesting as a fiction film. The trick is to shoot a lot. A fantastic example of a film that took real people and made them compelling for no other reason than just their regular often mundane lives is Seven Up and the subsequent sequels. These films are highly recommended. American Teen was taken from 1,000 hours of footage. As daunting as that undoubtedly was, the editor probably needed about twice that much film or tape in order to create a compelling film with no prompting or tweaking by the director.
If I consider this film as it’s presented, as a documentary, I’d have to give this film an extremely low score because so much of this film is acted but if I consider the film a work of fiction, it can be somewhat entertaining. It’s not deep and it doesn’t have much to say as far as social commentary because the characters are just cardboard cutouts of who these kids probably really are. If you’d like a melodramatic version of Square Pegs or some other TV teen series, this one is worth a watch but if you’re looking for a real voyeuristic examination of the modern teenager then this film isn’t for you. Don’t be tricked because this film is in the documentary section of the video store.
The film is presented in widescreen and overall it looks solid. Colors are solid and contrast is good. Black levels aren’t particularly deep and there is some grain that’s common to films that are shot digitally. For a film shot documentary style it looks good overall.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is crisp and clean, often a bit too clean for a documentary. The surrounds don’t get much use but this is a film of talking heads so there’s not much opportunity for booming base. Again, this film while basic in audio presentation, still sounds better than most similar documentaries.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The single disc comes packaged in a standard amaray case with what’s honestly uninspired artwork. What about making the cover of the box look like a yearbook? It’s not like any of these kids have the star power to make having their faces on the cover a must.
There’s an extremely brief set of cast interviews (less than 5 minutes) that manages to reveal that the cast members are all friends now. There’s nothing extremely interesting here.
There are ten “Hannah Blogs” that were created to promote the film. Hannah is the teen that wants to be a filmmaker. Again, not much that’ll hold your attention here. There are some deleted scenes and character specific trailers too.
Where’s the director commentary? I think she has a lot of explaining to do about her intent with the film and a commentary would have been the perfect venue for that.
American Teen is a failure as a documentary but as a piece of entertainment it passes in the same way as scripted reality shows such as Laguna Beach and The Hills. If you like those shows or even something like Gossip Girl, you might want to give this one a shot.
Overall (Not an Average) 5.5/10
The Movie 5/10
The Video 7/10
The Audio 7.5/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 4/10
Overall (Not an Average) 5.5/10