Directed By: Nanette Bernstein
In Nanette Bernstein’s documentary, American Teen, she follows a group of high school students throughout their senior year in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana. Each person represents a different stereotype in high school. We have the jocks: Collin Clemens and Mitch Reinholt, the popular princess: Megan Krizmanich, the artsy outcast: Hannah Bailey, and the band geek: Jake Tusing. These people are treated as much more than just stereoypes and we see the struggles that each of them go through even those that seem to be at the top. There is someone everyone can relate to and most people should see a bit of themselves or someone they knew in high school in every person in the film.
Collin Clemens being the star of the basketball team in this conservative town is treated like a walking god. Collin loves the game, but he was trained to love the game by his Elvis impersonating father since he was little. He has been put under constant pressure by him by his father to score a certain number of hoops each game to impress the scouts. Their relationship reminded me of a much less severe version of the Nathan and Dan Scott relationship on One Tree Hill. If Collin can’t be this player and get a scholarship he won’t be going to college at all and will most likely be taking up his father’s other dream for him, an Elvis impersonator. Megan Krizmanich is under a lot of pressure from her father too. Her father as well as just about every member in her family went to Notre Dame. She does very well in school and is in just about every club, organization, and sport possible. Still, she questions whether she is good enough to get in.
Collin and Megan pretty much rule the school. Collin is a bit more likeable though. Megan has this image of being perfect, but her prevailing side seems to be a much nastier one. She is extremely controlling and goes out of her way to make others feel insignificant. Even something as small as the theme of the prom makes her vandalize property with anti-homosexual graffiti. Megan treats her own friends poorly. When someone else is interested in her friend that she claims is just a friend she goes out of her way to sabotage it. She holds grudges against her best friend over a small argument and when her friend is the bigger person and is able to apologize Megan still puts all of the blame on her.
At the other side of the social circle we have Jake Tusing and Hannah Bailey. Jake is in the band. He is viewed merely as a geek and even in the band circle he isn’t very popular. Jake spends most of his time playing video games and is lacking in the relationship department. He desperately wants a girlfriend and sets out to do so. He ends up dating a freshman who is in the band, but just ends up getting treated badly by her. Hannah is thought of by others as the weird loner. She was by far my favorite storyline in the film though. She is a free spirit and is unique rather than trying to blend in like everybody else. She is very much in love with her boyfriend. They have everything in common and do everything together. One night he dumps her and her whole word comes crashing down. She can’t face him and stops going to school. After awhile, it becomes less about him and more about social anxiety. She feels all alone and that she is physically and mentally incapable of walking in to her school again. After three weeks she is told that if she misses another day that she won’t be able to graduate in the spring.
What really made me admire Hannah was her strength in acting on her desires. She is very artistic and dreams of going to film school in California. Her father and grandmother are against this and don’t believe she can make it. Hannah talks about her ambitions in life and how she wants to do something important with her time and to be remembered when she is dead. I found myself relating to Hannah on so many levels as at times it seemed that she was taking words right from my mouth. This being a documentary it is all the more satisfying as it not just a character I am relating to, but a person like myself getting through high school and attempting to embrace life, adding this universal quality to it.
There was a lot of cartoon animation during the transitions in the film. For Hannah this was very fitting as she is artistic and has the imagination that would create things like this. Through these animations we are able to see inside her mind a bit more. This worked well for Jake too as his world is inside a video game, having his real world and this fantasy world collide is what he dreams of. The animations put his dream world to life in front of us.
American Teen is my favorite brand of documentary. As someone who prefers fiction over documentaries, I enjoyed the simple story telling motives behind the film. It didn’t have an agenda, try to persuade, or look down upon anything. It simply tells the story of these teens and the type of things everyone goes through. They really touch on each person in the film even Megan who is shown in a bad light for most of the film. We learn about her struggles, especially the disability and suicide in her family. She is not simply a villain, she is only human. I felt for Jake who is viewed as a dork. I don’t share his interests, but I was able to understand them and what it means to him. Really if he had a bit more self confidence he would be a great boyfriend for the right girl. I really appreciated that the film showed aspects of high school aside from just social circles and dating. It hits on school itself, pressures to get in to college, and each person questioning what the future will hold; which are all crucial parts of being a high school senior just moments away from building the life you want to have. There is nothing spectacular or even all that new about American Teen. I think they could have focused less on Hannah’s second boyfriend in the film, since Collin is the stronger character type in the role of the popular guy and focused more on Hannah’s openly gay best friend. In a conservative town like Warsaw there are definitely issues there and a great story that went untold. Still, American Teen is a very human film and a chance for us to see aspects of vastly different teens who have similar hardships. They are at the time in life that puts them at a crossroads, even shedding light on the differences between high school and college.