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There's nothing that brings you back to high school memories like the sound of quad drums and trumpets in crisp fall air. And if that doesn't do it for you, how about sneakers squeaking on polished wood floors as the buzzer goes off? Or the chattery voices of the most popular girls rising above the cafeteria din?
Whatever you remember about high school, you'll find it and more in Nanette Burstein's American Teen, a simple but deeply moving documentary about average high school seniors in an average American town. Touted as a 2008 follow-up to The Breakfast Club, American Teen is a far smarter movie than either that 80s hit or the countless MTV shows that follow the lives of similar young Americans. In a time when the under-18 crowd is constantly written off as vapid, Paris Hilton wannabes, Burstein takes time to let the kids honestly express themselves; what she finds is both surprisingly and painfully familiar to anyone who has ever survived high school.
The movie starts by following four high school seniors who vaguely suit the usual stereotypes. Jake is a pimply band geek who spends his time playing video games rather than asking a girl out, which is what he really wants. Hannah styles herself a wild artist type and dreams of going off to California, but is haunted by her mother's depression and fears she could fall into the same despair. Colin is an affable star athlete facing monumental pressure from his dad, a former basketball star. And Megan is a bitchier-than-average rich girl, who at first seems to have no redeeming quality other than the obvious insecurity that lies beneath her mean girl behavior.
It's insecurity, for the most part, that links these kids throughout. Though they all attend the same small high school in Warsaw, Indiana, the four teens' lives don't intersect all that often, though each is vaguely familiar with each other's personalities. The movie follows the school year in rough chronological order, as Jake pursues a relationship with a freshman who seems to date him because she has nothing better to do, Colin faces a future in the military if he can't snag a college scholarship, Megan contemplates her top spot in the school's pecking order, and, most surprisingly, Hannah starts a relationship with Mitch, a basketball player more suited to Megan's cool clique than Hannah's outsider status. Their relationship, while seeming more fitting for a Breakfast Club-type fantasy, is one of the most realistic aspects of the story, especially when it ends in a typically awkward adolescent way.
Burstein uses clever animated sequences to depict the hopes and dreams of the kids, from Jake's Legends of Zelda-inspired story of winning the right girl to a gothic depiction of Hannah's fears about her own psyche. Rather than distancing the audience, the animation only contributes to our deep identification with the kids onscreen, so that when we reach their graduation at the end of the film, it's as emotional as a real ceremony. While it's impossible to measure the impact of the cameras on these teens' behaviors, they certainly seem real and unfettered throughout the movie. And if they're not, we can fill in the blanks. Everyone has gone to high school. Everyone will identify with this wonderful film.