Rating: 2.5 stars
Anyone who watches the new documentary American Teen, about high school life in a small town in Indiana, will be compelled to cast a fictitious version of the film in their mind. Alt-rocky, angsty teen girl Hannah Bailey could be played by Julia Stiles, who played a similar character in 10 Things I Hate About You. Nerdy, but deceptively self-aware Jake Tusing could be played by Michael Cera, who played a similar character in Juno (and Superbad). Wealthy queen bee Megan Krizmanich, who is probably just responding to fierce pressures at home, could be played by Rachel McAdams, who played a similar character in Mean Girls. Sensitive popular kid Mitch Reinholt, who dates Hannah until peer pressure compels a break-up, could be played by Zac Efron, who plays a similar character in the High School Musical movies. And so on.
These similarities point out what is good—and not so good—about this documentary. On the one hand, American Teen is extremely watchable—it’s fast paced, suspenseful (will Megan get into Notre Dame? will Hannah leave Indiana for San Francisco?) and often quite funny (“I am like this sock,” says droll Jake, comparing his social life to a pairless sock in the dryer). It has some raw moments, too, such as when Hannah breaks up with a boyfriend and goes into a deep, dark depression; or when basketball player Colin misses the last shot and cries in the locker room, but for the most part, it glosses over the real troubles of these kids in favor of funny montages (such as when Jake goes to visit his older brother in college and has a few too many beers) and pat resolutions.
We don’t learn much about these kids that we don’t already know—that teens face lots of pressures, from their parents, from their peers, from themselves—and director Nanette Burstein doesn’t seem interested in the stories that don’t fit our comfortable stereotypes. (For example, Hannah has a best friend who is a male—he even takes her to prom. What’s the nature of their relationship? Is he gay? A straight boy secretly pining for her? That more out-of-the-box, complex relationship is never explored.)
Still, it’s the kids—equal parts smart, candid, and clueless—that make American Teen worth watching. You’ll root for them, even while wishing that this documentary on their lives dug a little deeper.