Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Film Review--American Teen (2008)

American Teen
written and directed by Nanette Burstein
starring Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing

Ah, the politics of high school. The intimacy, vein-slicing drama, seismic shifts from minute to minute. The great manic depression, total seriousness to flippant callous remark in the time it takes to cruise the drag lane in your '84 Thunderbird. This film focuses on five teens during their senior years at Warsaw High School in Warsaw, Indiana. The five fit into catagories that are easily disseminated. There is Hannah, the creative outcast who sees things "differently" than the rest. Colin is the jock who sees the world as king fish. Megan is the princess of the school who gets away with whatever she wants because she's considered beautiful and owns the market on extracurricular activitiess. Mitch is the boy girls most want to hold their hands and blow gently in their ear. Jake is the acne-encrusted, band playing geek who struggles with forging friendships. Together, they prove to be an intriguing bunch of kids who are all striving toward recognition for the lives they are in the process of creating.

We learn a great deal of information about these kids throughout the film. Hannah's mother is bipolar and so she lives with her grandmother. She has long been obsessed with film, photography, painting, playing music, and whatever other creative project she might encounter. She possesses a very tangible energy that propels her forward into the void headfirst without wavering. She desperately wants to leave Warsaw with it's staunch conservatism and intolerance of change behind. She craves stimulation and has hit on San Francisco State as her dream college. Early in the film an unexpected breakup with a boyfriend of two years triggers a depressive stage that sees her missing nearly 20 days worth of school. Seeing her stricken with terror at the prospect or returning to school proves to be devastating and unnerving. Initially she is an open, effervescent, free child with no worries and she suddenly morphs into a morose, frightened, psychologically distressed little girl with no hopes and no future. As she slowly returns to what for her is normal, it's easy to imagine the audience breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Megan is the perfect example of the accomplished, popular student who acts out out of boredom. Surely, she has an ideal life. She is involved in a great number of after school activities, she's dedicated, and the film also finds her lashing out at others often just because she can. When a rival member of the Prom Planning Committee approves a theme different than the one Megan had planned on, she paints (using removable window paint) an obscene symbol and the word "fag" on their window. Because of who she is she is given a slap on the wrist. Earlier in the film a classmate of hers had sent a picture of herself topless to a male friend of hers. This friend sent it to another person who forwarded it on to several more so that eventually most of the school had seen and/or downloaded the image. Megan called her on the phone and berated her for her action. Meanwhile, Megan acknowledges that her sister committed suicide in her parent's basement two years ago. Because of her vindictiveness and cruelty, it's difficult for me at least to actualize empathy for Megan. Certainly, she possesses a strong personality and a sort of career-hunger that afflicts the majority of teens as they leave high school. But, in the end, she's just another pretty bitch with privilege who is able to skate by because everyone is terrified of her.

Colin is popular because he is a basketball star. He's gregarious, smart, and certainly not charmless. The film tracks the basketball season where Colin wants to do well so he can obtain a scholarship rather than go into the army which is, according to his dad, his only other option as money is tight. For much of the season he struggles because he's a showboat and shoots the ball every time he gets his hands on it. He's selfish and seems unwilling to learn that basketball is a team game.

Mitch is considered a heartthrob who possesses a lazy, shuffling charm and always seems exceedingly stoned; he's comfortable being who he is and of the five seems the least motivated to prove himself in any way. He dates Hannah until he realizes his buddies don't approve and proceeds to dump her via a text message. He is charming in an unassuming way and at ease with who he is as a person. He's the one kid in the film who doesn't seem driven to escape from the life that has been created for him through the institution of public education.

Jake is an earnest kid who simply wants to be seen by some of the other kids. He feels invisible because he hasn't been able to make any friends and finds it easier to lose himself in "The Legend of Zelda" and other role playing video games. Over the course of the film he dates three different girls and the relationships end for various reasons. He suffers from severe acne which exacerbates his already fragile self image yet he manages to overcome this through the sheer power of his will and his determination. He's the smartest of the five students but he masks it with a painfully shy demeanor and an almost pathological lack of social dexterity.

Each of these students represent a particular snapshot from high school. I suppose the point of the film is to create moments of wheezing nostalgia to assault the cerebral cortex of audience members who become subsequently crippled with guilt and nausea. Well, at least, it wants us to remember high school and hopefully nod appreciatively when something on the screen mimics our past experience. I imagine this film triggering soul-crushing memories that have remained obscured for twenty years or more in it's audience.

Overall, it's a telling film that stirs up old memories of that time when the entire world hangs in the balance because of a phone call or a gesture. It's refreshing to be introduced to so many earnest students full of promise, untainted by future failures and disappointments. The main five individuals in the film each possess a strong, vital personality that readily come through as the film progresses. Although the trailer shoves each student in a specific category the film itself proves that such categories are unable to hold the complexities of a single person and that people are often much more or less than they seem. Ultimately, this film captures the mood of the times, the petty squabbling, the heatbreaks, the occasional anguish that seems to last forever when you are young and unceremoniously trapped in an institution.

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