A documentary from Nanette Burstein following the lives of four Indiana teenagers in their final year of high school. All the cliques and clichés are represented: Megan, the popular girl, Colin the jock, Jake the loner nerd and Hannah the emo chic. On the face of it, it feels like we’ve seen this all before, and much of it, we have. In fact, perhaps part of the reason that this documentary almost feels scripted is the incredible similarity it bares to, well, every teenage cliché ever.
But there are some issues we see here that are not normally dealt with quite so openly, in particular Hannah’s mental health. With a mother suffering from clinical depression, Hannah is very determined not to end up like her mother, living a life that she does not particularly want. And yet, all it takes is a breakup with her boyfriend to drive her into depression herself, one which she spends the remainder of the year battling.
Of course, all of these teenagers come with the complete lack of perspective that being that age brings. Megan cannot imagine a world of which she is not the centre, Colin has no idea where his life goes beyond basketball, Jake thinks he will always be an outcast and Hannah cannot wait to get out of that town so she can be the person she wants to be.
To Burstein’s credit, she manages to make the kids extremely comfortable with her presence, and is witness to many of these teenagers most intimate and vulnerable moments. What is bizarre (or perhaps even dubious) is how well the events in these teens' lives play out narratively. From Colin sinking the winning basket in the dying seconds of the championship game, to Hannah realising her dream of moving to San Francisco, to Jake’s optimism about his future with his girlfriend from San Diego, there is a remarkable level of “happy ever after” derived from these real lives. Of course, maybe I just have cynical world view – maybe things typically turn out for the best for most people. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Overall American Teen is an update of the clichés that we all know inside out. While it does bring some interesting new aspects to the table, it’s not quite enough to make it feel fresh. B.