There are times when I regret starting college two years early as, much like Woody Allen’s autobiographical character from Annie Hall who confuses reality with fantasy, most of my vivid high school memories come straight from the John Hughes oeuvre. Thus when I switched to college at sixteen, I become questionably nostalgic about missed proms, the nervousness of walking to the podium to accept a diploma, and the way that some of my friends seem to recall their teenage years with a mischievous glimmer of longing in their eye.
Yet, aside from Matthew Broderick's Ferris Bueller, who seemed like the king of his school (when he was there, that is), the misfits played by Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, and Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles never really painted an inviting portrait of high school life. Instead, through the eyes of the likable outsiders to whom as a brainy film nerd I instantly related, we witnessed the depiction of high school as a modern day American caste system filled with abused serfs and lowly peasants wherein Queen Bees and jocks ruled the terrain in a seemingly endless parade of perfect hair, skin, family, wealth, romantic luck, and connections. However, when you combine these iconic 1980s John Hughes images with the new incredible documentary American Teen crafted by Sundance Film Festival award-winning director Nanette Burstein, I realize that I’m extremely grateful that I skipped junior and senior year.
The film begins with a Breakfast Club-inspired structure in presenting us with five teenagers who upon first glance seem to epitomize Hughes’s labels from the jock to the princess. Predictably by using a documentary approach, the personalities depicted all transcend the labels to become fully realized human beings in the eyes of the viewer. And in the end, we’re surprised to discover that in the world of high school, not too much has changed in twenty years. In fact, it seems as though Club’s theme song “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” was passed down like a torch from Generation X to Y, since we haven’t forgotten the hateful caste system.
Furthermore, contrary to the popular media assumption that partying, sex, and violence is always the chef’s special in the menu of teenage behavior, the five Midwestern high school seniors chronicled by Burstein find themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure not only from one another but parents, coaches, and teachers as they all near the finishing line of their obligatory education. However the quest to “fit in” still reigns supreme and in the technological era of text messaging, digital cameras, reality television, and instant Internet gratification ranging from e-mail, blogging, websites, and YouTube, it’s “amped up the cruelty and the regret-ability factor,” as Burstein noted in the Filmmaker Magazine interview “Personality Crisis” by Jason Guerrasio (Summer 2008; pg. 41-42).
After an exhaustive search for the right location to capture the essence of the American Teen experience, Burstein settled on the small town of Warsaw, Indiana and its sole high school, wherein she discovered five engaging seniors who were completely open to the documentary process. Also, much like the characters in The Breakfast Club, they initially embody each teenage “archetype,” only for us to realize that there’s much more going on behind the easy smiles and nervous laughs than we’d expected from the start.
Ruling the roost of the high school, we meet two popular, attractive basketball stars, Colin Clemens and Mitch Reinholdt, as well as the Student Council Vice President and extra-curricular Queen Bee, Megan Krizmanich. The son of an Elvis impersonator, Colin Clemens was groomed for athletic glory since he was given a Fisher Price basketball hoop as a baby. However, in the pressure to impress talent scouts and earn a scholarship, he begins struggling under the demands of his coach as well as his father who tells Colin in no uncertain terms that if he doesn’t earn a scholarship, he must enlist in the army. Whereas Colin is preoccupied with athletic and familial expectations and anxiety, his teammate Mitch finds his popularity jeopardized when he begins dating outside his social clique after finding himself drawn to the sensitive, brainy, fiercely passionate aspiring filmmaker Hannah Bailey.
Always eager to draw the lines of popular mores and the dos and don’ts of being one of the school’s untouchables, the beautiful, brainy, but unexpectedly vindictive blonde Megan Krizmanich doesn’t think twice about jeopardizing her admission into Notre Dame — there’s a family connection after all — in order to vandalize, trash, or embarrass anyone who crosses her. Obviously, Megan is easily depicted as the villainess of the piece despite her own typed update which plays during the film’s end credits notes arguing that she’s “matured… a lot” since becoming a college student.
And in filming some of Megan’s rather odious high school actions, it does make one wonder about the ethical implications of Burstein’s documentary since as a film, it will live on forever digitally and for better or worse, follow these students the same way that Michael Apted’s Up Series documentaries have followed his subjects their entire lives. While of course the students agreed to be filmed, I’m not sure this is the way that some of the kids would like to be cinematically immortalized, yet admirably Burstein never judges her subjects especially when things get increasingly dramatic.
However, much like in the Hughes movies, it’s the outsiders who most capture our hearts. A self-described “marching band nerd” who notes an obsession with video games, Jake Tusing is the type of guy who is perpetually given the “let’s just be friends” speech in school and despite being plagued with a horrific case of acne, the likable, good-natured, if overly-eager Jake makes it his mission as soon as the film opens to find a girlfriend. And he succeeds… at least for a while, but Jake’s troubles pale in comparison to the nearly catastrophic drama that surrounds the film’s center, Hannah Bailey, the liberal, outspoken, atheist who is dumped by her long-term boyfriend in a rather cruel way early on into the film.
With the ultimate goal to get the hell out of Warsaw and go to film school in California, Hannah battles overwhelming heartbreak, depression, and embarrassment, missing several days of school before she’s finally willing to go back and face her peers, for fear of judgment. And although while we realize upon a first intrigued glance that Mitch will no doubt be drawn to Hannah as she’s one of those vital girls totally unaware of how beautiful she is, we predict that it won’t work out.
Yet, much like Ellen Page's Juno, to whom she will immediately draw parallels and indeed to whom Burstein likens the unforgettable Hannah as well, you just know that she, along with the other students, will ultimately find her own way. Additionally, in a great contradiction to teen films that “usually have these vapid one-dimensional girls,” (Filmmaker, pg. 44) as well as boys, we feel privileged and honored that Burstein chose to make a film that accurately represents the high school experience in a way that unites the generations by their similarities and invites new understanding in exposing the technological differences.
Although, ultimately as an adult, it’s at times painful to witness some of the events without longing to intervene and tell these five kids that it’s all going to be okay and high school will soon vanish and their real lives can begin. And besides, whenever they start to feel nostalgic, there’s always John Hughes to carry them through.