If you can’t remember high school–how harrowing its halls are, how invigorating those first flexes of independence can be, how fucking obnoxious high school students are–the makers of American Teen have crafted a movie expressly designed to clarify those memories. Focusing on the lives of four (eventually five) high school students from the first day of senior year right through to graduation, American Teen is another fly-on-the-wall docudrama by the folks at A&E Indie Films. Like the other productions from A&E–Murderball, My Kid Could Paint That, Jesus Camp–the documentary pokes its nose into an idiosyncratic world with its own peculiar hierarchies, social cues, and jargons; unlike those other movies, Teen is an idiosyncratic world in which nearly everyone in America has inhabited at some point in their lives.
In picking its Everytown, USA, location (Warsaw, Ind., to be precise) and a generally archetypal selection of students–“a heartthrob, a princess, a jock, a rebel and a geek,” the tag line accurately reads–the first part of director Nanette Burstein’s (The Kid Stays in the Picture) thesis is clear: Everyone’s high school experience is similar. But in its gentle exposition and in-depth character studies, Teen heartily proves the second, less obvious part of that thesis: Everyone’s high school experience is unique. Both parts of this idea, however, are only applicable if you’re white and hovering somewhere near middle class, since Warsaw isn’t the most socioeconomically diverse environment. It’s worth noting that, despite the implied prosperity gap between them, both the well-to-do prom queen and the scrappy artist drive their own cars, and neither appears to have a job.
Burstein’s greatest success in Teen is in stressing the uniqueness of each of these kids by revealing them to be creatures who are much more complex than appearances allow. Among those same five archetypal high-schoolers are a partier, a drama queen, someone who’s endured suicide in the family, a free spirit, and an insecure romantic. And none of them is the kid you’d assume him or her to be. By scratching just beneath their hallway-steeled personas, Burstein proves the adage that’s basically keeping A&E on the air: Everyone’s got a story, and it’s probably kinda fucked up.
And it’s truly notable how fucked up all of these kids are, and not in the scare-tactic, drugs-and-sex way that teenagers are typically portrayed on the big and small screen. No, these kids are fucked up in the way that high school students have been fucked up for decades: Empowered by years of being told they’re special and can accomplish anything, they feel ready to take on the world. They’re experiencing romantic love, they’re driven, and they’re extremely aware of the world around them. But at the same time, they’re emotionally retarded and astonishingly naive.
The eternal tug of war between independence and immaturity has always been muddled by parents’ constant, contradictory exhortations to “grow up” and “you can’t because you’re still a kid.” But in recent years, those messages have become even cloudier, as children have been bullied into deciding their lifelong paths at an age when they can barely decide which shirt to wear without having a meltdown, all while being more and more sheltered from a world their parents deem “dangerous.” To that end, Teen brilliantly demonstrates how unnerving it is to be a high school student these days. All of these kids are grappling with enormous–gigantic–decisions about their futures, but often appear equally overcome by conflicts over prom decorations or some such seemingly inconsequential thing.
Those things aren’t, to a teenager, inconsequential. And American Teen emphasizes this. Not in the “oh, these silly kids” way that most adults minimize the swirling chaos that is life in high school. Instead, it casts an empathetic eye toward revealing these students as formative adults. The documentary shows them living in a world full of crippling self-doubt and endless pressure to conform and succeed. It also shows them struggling to survive and prosper in their own unique ways. That very uniqueness winds up making all of these supposed archetypes truly engaging characters. It also makes American Teen essential viewing, both for kids about to embark upon that journey and the parents entrusted to help them along.