American Teen
 
            “American Teen” is kind of an awkward, compelling combination of a documentary and a reality show.  Director Nanette Burstein, physically absent from the footage, but whose poignant touch pervades this teenage epic, has put together a compilation of gentle but revealing portraits of four kids from Warsaw, Iowa, going through the throes of their Senior year in high school, the vicissitudes of adolescent angst, the raging hormones of mature puberty, and crises of personal identity that always accompany the pithy question, “What are you going to do with rest of your life?”
            There’s the geek, the art student, the jock, and the beauty queen.  But this isn’t some biopic “Breakfast Club,” where the stereotypes wind up morphing toward each other, the obvious point being that our similarities outweigh our differences.   No, these are real people, and the categories they use to define themselves actually become, for them, a kind of chasm across which they dare not traverse.   As if they feel safer in the relational cages of their own devising.  As do we all.
            In some ways, the kids are extraordinary, and in some ways they are painfully ordinary.  The geek, his face often ravaged by acne, suffers from chronic self-doubt and insecurity, which in his fumbling hands becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  Even when he surprises himself by getting an actual acceptance to the Senior Prom, he refuses to dance with her, and sulks at the table without even attempting conversation, virtually guaranteeing emotional failure.  She doesn’t even go home with him, which allows him to continue in his self-appointed moody martyrdom.   His only zeal seems to be for video games where he is Prince Charming, saving the Princess, and the carefully-constructed movie animation shows him in his video game, doing just that.  Would that we could all be the hero of even our own video games.
            The jock is under a lot of pressure, not just because he’s supposed to be the star of the basketball team, but because his father makes it clear to him that without an athletic scholarship, he won’t be going to college.  Then the pressure to score points affects his willingness to pass the ball, and then the overall effectiveness of the whole team.  But he handles this kind of pressure with apparent nonchalance, even as his father urges him to make something of himself, while dressed, as he is, in a fake Elvis getup, doing Elvis impersonation gigs at the local nursing homes.  Of course, we all live our contradictions with a straight face.  Otherwise, we couldn’t cope at all.
            The “popular” girl is at once the most complex and the most irritating.  Yes, she is self-absorbed, self-centered, and has somehow been conditioned to think far too much of her looks than she really ought. We all know she’ll go off to college and discover that there are a lot of other girls a lot cuter.  And nobody will care how popular she was in high school.  But she has her own pressures.  Her family wants desperately for her to attend Notre Dame, like her Dad, and her big brother, and her big sister.  There seems to be no viable alternative, even though admission is by no means assured, even for a legacy.  She seems to be smart enough, though we never really see her study.  We do, however, watch her be alternately catty, mischievous, condescending, emotional, profane, conciliatory, apoplectic, shocked, manipulative, morose, and convulsed with laughter, and that’s just on Mondays. 
            The “art student” girl is the one self-consciously out of the mainstream, but secretly desiring to be accepted, even while she plays the maverick.  She has a “best friend”, a guy with whom she confides, and we wonder how much he’d like to upgrade his status with her, but he is the one she cries on when she decides to give herself, and it wasn’t all she thought it would be.  He’s the one she cries on when she gets unceremoniously dumped by text message.  She keeps saying she wants to get out of that town, somewhere far away, and we wonder if she ever will, or if she does, will she pursue her artistic dream, or just continue her misfit ways?
            Which one is best prepared for adulthood?  How scandalized are we by spin-the-bottle parties?  A topless picture sent maliciously by e-mail and cell phone?  An out-of-town older brother who provides alcohol?  Smoking in the bedroom?  Parents who seem to be crashingly absent, odiously overbearing, or remarkably irrelevant? 
            “American Teen” burrows into the psyche and stays there.  It taps into the emotional insecurities of all of us, because we’ve all been to high school, and we all carry the emotional scars, despite any public protestations.  “American Teen” is not just about four teenage kids and their friends.  It’s about us all. 
 
Questions For Discussion:
1)      Honestly, how did you feel about yourself in high school?
2)      Honestly, how has your self-image changed since then?
 
 
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas