“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
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
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
“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:
Honestly, how did you feel about yourself in high
Honestly, how has your self-image changed since
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace