- Rated PG-13
All photos © Paramount Vantage
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
hese days, if you want an inside look at teenagers in America, you’re pretty much stuck watching the exploits of spoiled West Coast brats on shows like “Laguna Beach” and “The Hills.” It’s refreshing, then, to see that director Nanette Burstein has opted to ground "American Teen" in a much more realistic location: the Midwest. By doing so, Burstein has allowed herself access to a more diverse group of subjects (or at least as diverse as you’re bound to find in middle-class, white America), and while that may not make her film any more realistic than MTV’s stable of reality shows, it’s certainly more genuine.
Set in the “mostly while, mostly Christian, and red state all the way” town of Warsaw, Indiana, “American Teen” follows four very different teenagers through their final year of high school. There’s Hannah the Rebel, a liberal artist-type who dreams of moving out to California to study film; Jake the Geek, a socially awkward band nerd who longs for a girlfriend; Megan the Princess, the quintessential homecoming queen who's under pressure from her father to get into Notre Dame; and Colin the Jock, a star basketball player who must earn an athletic scholarship in order to avoid the Army.
Each kid has a story to tell, but if there’s just one star of the film, it’s Hanna Bailey – undoubtedly Burstein’s favorite of the four students. There’s just something about the self-proclaimed in-betweener that you instantly fall in love with. Whether it’s her unconventional beauty, her free-spirited lifestyle, or the fact that she just doesn’t seem to belong, the audience gets behind Hannah from the moment she’s introduced. You empathize with her when her boyfriend suddenly decides to break it off, or why she would be afraid to return to school the following day, and you root for her when she becomes the unlikely crush of school heartthrob Mitch Reinholt.
The other three students aren’t nearly as interesting, but Jake’s quest to find a girlfriend (which Burstein likens to a video game in one of the film’s many animated “dream sequences”) is ripe with comic moments. You don’t even feel bad laughing at his misadventures, either, because Jake laughs at himself quite a bit – like when he cracks jokes about his acne-covered face while being dumped. It’s all part of growing up, and Jake seems to recognize that pretty early on. Colin and Megan, however, don’t really mature until the end of the school year. The former, whose selfish playing tactics push his team into a losing streak for the first time in years, doesn’t fully understand the concept of teamwork until the last possible minute, while Megan doesn't truly grow up until the “where are they now” prologue.
Some might criticize Burstein for turning the queen bee into the film’s villain, but Megan doesn’t try very hard to convince her otherwise. It’s like she walked straight out of the film “Mean Girls” (complete with her own little submissive posse) and began terrorizing anyone that got in her way. For instance, when her close friend Geoff receives a topless photo from a girl at a school, it’s Megan who leads the smear campaign against her, circulating the photo to everyone she knows and leaving vulgar messages on the poor girl’s voice mail. Not even an 11th hour revelation as to why Megan might be acting this way changes how she comes off as a person, and though she’s a necessary addition to the film, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually cared about her individual journey.
Though “American Teen” has been heavily marketed as being about five students, Mitch doesn’t actually come into play until later in the film; and even then it’s more as a part of Hannah’s storyline than his own. In fact, the audience never really learns much about him other than that he’s a member of the basketball team and a mostly standup guy, and it’s better off that way. The last thing the movie needed was another storyline to juggle, and while it’s nice to see some of the “supporting characters” getting a little face time away from the major players, the film works best when it’s focused on its core group. “American Teen” is one of the smartest, funniest, and downright entertaining movies you’ll see all year, and whether you’ve just graduated from high school or are about to attend your 20-year reunion, you could only be so lucky to have a video yearbook as impressive as this.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
Documentaries rarely have many extras since the movie is already its own making-of featurette, but Paramount deserves credit for at least trying. Along with a short collection of interviews with the film’s star, the single-disc release also includes character trailers, video blogs by Hannah Bailey, and a handful of deleted scenes including an excruciatingly awkward segment where Jake and his date spend nine minutes saying goodbye. For now, the DVD can only be found exclusively at Target, but hopefully that won’t last long, because this is a film that everyone needs to see.