American Teen
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When the promotional poster for the film festival darling American Teen was released earlier this year, it looked strikingly familiar—because it was designed to look like the poster for the ‘80s teen classic The Breakfast Club. And for good reason, too. Although none of the teens in this high school documentary end up spending a life-changing Saturday together in detention, their lives play out in a remarkably John Hughes kind of way.

American Teen follows four members of the class of 2006 at Warsaw (Indiana) Community High School as they make their way through their senior year. First, of course, there are the popular kids. There’s Colin Clemens, the school’s basketball star. He’s fun-loving and athletic, but he’s under serious pressure to get a college scholarship. His parents don’t have the money for college—so if there’s no scholarship, there’s no college. If there’s no college, his dad expects him to enlist in the army.

There’s also Megan Krizmanich, the quintessential it-girl and queen of the Mean Girls. She’s rich and popular and active. But, like Colin, she’s facing college pressure from her dad. Almost everyone in her family has attended Notre Dame—but she’s not sure she’ll be accepted.

On the other end of the social spectrum, there’s Jake Tusing, the video game-playing band geek. He’s awkward and invisible at school—and all he wants out of his senior year is a girlfriend.

And finally, caught somewhere in the middle is Hannah Bailey, the artsy rebel chick who refuses to buy into the high school hype. All she wants is to graduate and head to California to become a filmmaker.

As the four teens make their way through their senior year, the audience sees everything in great detail, zits and all. By that, I do mean that director Nanette Burstein often films tight on the blemished faces of her teenaged subjects. But I also mean that Burstein shows both the good and the bad. Somehow, she gets the kids to open up to the camera. They fight, they cry, they vandalize fellow students’ homes, they talk about their dreams and their feelings, and they learn important (though often painful) lessons. They don’t hold a whole lot back. And as you get to know them, you’ll care about [most of] them. You’ll see yourself—and your old high school classmates—in them. You’ll relive those difficult teen years with them. And you’ll want to give them a big hug and tell them it’ll be okay—that heartbreak and embarrassment and high school cliques don’t last forever.

As for the story, John Hughes himself couldn’t have written it better. It shows the kids’ ups and downs, their victories and defeats. Along they way, they’ll surprise you with their honesty and determination. They’ll make you laugh, and they’ll make you cry. And they’ll leave you with the hope that they’ve grown up just a little bit in the process.

Though it sometimes feels like an episode of The Hills (especially when Megan and her friends are on-screen), American Teen is, nevertheless, a heartfelt and heart-warming documentary. While it’s not always easy to watch, it’s thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end.

And when it’s all over, you’ll be thankful that only have to live through high school once.

DVD Review:
The American Teen DVD (which, incidentally, is only available for sale at Target, though you can rent it anywhere) is basically an extension of the film—with extras that are mostly made up of footage that didn’t make the final cut. On the disc, you’ll find a bunch of deleted scenes, featuring even more awkward teen moments (most notably a nine-minute just-kiss-her-already scene with poor, awkward Jake), as well as 10 additional “blogs” with Hannah, who chats to the camera about everything from her dog to her idea of the perfect guy. There’s also an interview with the cast members, who discuss the filmmaking process, people’s reactions to the film, and the unlikely friendships that came out of the experience.

While the DVD isn’t loaded with features, they’re still worth a look—especially the cast interviews. But the highlight of the disc is still the film itself. If you haven’t seen this entertaining and heartwarming documentary, be sure to find a copy. If nothing else, it’ll make you feel better about your stressful job and your massive credit card bill. After all, it could be worse; you could be back in high school.

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