American Teen

Reality TV, welcome to the multiplex. If The Hills went back to high school and developed wit, perception and a conscience, it might play something like Nanette Burstein's wallop of a doc. Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture) did total immersion with a handful of seniors at the only high school in Warsaw, Indiana, which we're told is "mostly white, mostly Christian and red state all the way." It's not all condescending; a church sign announces, "Get an Afterlife." Camera in hand for more than 10 months, Burstein waited patiently for character types out of a John Hughes movie to shake off their clichéd shells — the prom queen (Megan Krizmanich), the star athlete (Colin Clemens), the band geek (Jake Tusing), the arty rebel (Hannah Bailey). The fact that they do, sometimes by happy accident, sometimes by Burstein rigging the action (oh, don't tell me she doesn't), speaks volumes about our pop culture. Cameras are so much in the faces of cellphone-carrying, YouTube-MySpace-Facebook-obsessed teenagers that the kids soon stop lying and just let it be. It's eye-opening that American Teen is just as revealing when the kids are faking it and the pain seeps in between the cracks. "All we have to do is figure out who we are and where we're heading in life," says Hannah, adding succinctly, "Holy shit!" For pizazz, Burstein plugs in animation — acne-plagued Jake sees himself as a hero in his own video game. Secrets come out about depression, suicide and that all-ages killer, peer pressure. When superjock Mitch Reinholt breaks from his crowd to date Hannah, we so want him not to wimp out. It's trite but true: All life is like high school. These American teens really get under your skin. You'll be pissed. You'll be perplexed. You'll be totally riveted.

From The Archives Issue 289: April 19, 1979