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Arts & Culture

American Teen

CLIP: "Good morning Tigers..."

A new school year is about to begin at Warsaw Community High School. But for filmmaker Nanette Burstein her work began months earlier as she was scoping out high schools in the Midwest to find the perfect one for her documentary American Teen . She narrowed her focus to ten schools in four states and then interviewed all the incoming seniors to figure out which school would provide the most compelling stories. She finally decided on Warsaw, Indiana and five seniors that could easily be stereotyped as a jock, a princess, a rebel, a heartthrob, and a geek.

Jake: "the only people I hang out with the band, the other geeks, I guess my clique is the band.. ."


But Burstein's goal was to look past the clique labels to explore what it's like being a teen in contemporary USA. First, she had to win the trust of the students. Then she shot everyday with them for ten months.

NANETTE BURSTEIN: "Everyday we'd show up at lunch because it was the easiest way to find all the different kids and we'd find out what was going on, what was the latest and greatest, and we'd have to judge at every moment what we would be shooting based on what they were telling us. Going on a date or breaking up with someone or staying home and watching TV whatever it might be."

From the beginning, the nerdy Jake and the rebellious Hannah were open to Burstein filming their most intimate moments. But the popular kids were far more guarded.

NANETTE BURSTEIN: "They [Hannah and Jake] were the most open to being filmed and didn't have a problem from the beginning filming pretty intimate moments. So I spent a lot of time filming them from the beginning and there were actually dramatic things happening with them. The more popular kids were far more reluctant to expose what was happening in their lives I suppose they had a lot more to lose because they worried about their reputation more and they are people that are being watched all the time."

Hannah on Prom Night (Paramount Vantage)


So maybe that's why we take more quickly to the artsy Hannah who feels a burning desire to escape her small town.

Hannah: "Warsaw is so conservative, and I'm so not conservative. I don't fit in."

NANETTE BURSTEIN: "She definitely understood more than anyone why I would want to capture more vulnerable moments with her and intimate and raw moments with her. She understood that that was what was going to make it a good film."

What makes it a good film is Hannah's willingness to discuss anything, including her surprise when the campus heartthrob takes an interest in her.

Hannah: "So many girls would give their left boob to go on a date with him and he's so into hanging out with me."

When Hannah's idyllic romance hits a snag, Burstein was there to film it. Burstein essentially had to be like a doctor on call 24/7, ready to film anything at a moment's notice. So when a tearful Hannah called a male friend and asked him to come over to talk, Burstein went with him

NANETTE BURSTEIN: "I went with just a little camera and put a mic on him and I lit them with my car headlights and she just ignored the camera and didn't care."

Hannah's emotional upheavals are easy to identify with but prom queen Megan is a little harder to warm up to.

Megan in American Teen (Paramount Vantage)

Announcer: "Megan's plans include attending Notre Dame, let's here it for our homecoming royalty..."

At one point Megan's involved in distribuing a nude photo of a fellow student over cell phones and the Internet.

NANETTE BURSTEIN: "It was a really important moment to show because it really is how technology can be devastating to people in high school now it's not like passing a note any more it can be all over town instantly."

But even Megan wins us over as she reveals the impact of a family tragedy and the pressure her father places on her to attend Notre Dame. One thing that strikes you about Burstein's subjects is that they're all white. But Burstein says this is not necessarily a disadvantage.

NANETTE BURSTEIN: "... all the issues that come up about the insecurity and the cruelty amongst each other and wanting to fit in, and the heartbreak, that is completely universal..."

By removing race from the equation, Burstein allows us to look at more universal questions about teen life. Although there are some new challenges for contemporary teens, Burstein concludes that many things have remained the samel. Surviving high school is still tough as kids try to fit in and try to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. But Burstein reminds us of the hopes and passions of young people like Hannah.

Hannah: "I want people to remember me after I die. I don't want to live for nothing."

American Teen (rated PG-13 for some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking-all involving teens) and its five high school seniors will be remembered thanks to Nanette Burstein's compassionate and well-observed efforts.

And just an end note: there's also great footage of one of the dad's who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator. I just had to mention that.

Companion viewing: The Breakfast Club, Election, Juno, The Kid Stays in the Picture