Sundance Review: ‘American Teen’ is Best of the Fest Material

A few years back a group of friends and I made a trip to Southern California. Among these friends were two particular guys who were huge fans of the MTV reality show Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. For years they had enjoyed watching the show, all under the assumption that there was nothing staged, nothing glamorized about it. When we finally made it to the small oceanside town of Laguna Beach, they were mightily disappointed. Where was LC, Kristin and Stephen? Where were the parties?

The answer is that shows like that don’t always depict the lives of their subjects as they truly are, making them less documentary and more tabloid fiction. In fact, most “real life” reality shows somehow find a way to distend themselves from reality — and more importantly, real American people.

Insert director Nanette Burstein’s brilliantly observant documentary American Teen. It follows the lives of four real high school students from Warsaw, Indiana: the star basketball player, the queen bee, the socially outcast artsy girl and the geek. Over the course of their final year in high school, we watch them as they attempt to cope with the pressures put on them by parents, their impending collegiate lives and the everyday drama that plagues the average real high school student.

Of course, the premise is a lot like the aforementioned Laguna Beach, but this doc is set in the midwest — not some glammed up Southern Californian suburb. It presents a great amount of insight into what it is like to grow up in the places that people in NY and LA fly over on their way back and forth. Perhaps that is where I connected to it — as I grew up within a few hours drive of this Indiana town. Somehow, I believe that others would connect with it as well, as Warsaw represents every regular joe town in the midwest.

The beauty of the film is really in its presentation, which combines a well edited documentary with some very creative animations. As the students talk about their aspiration and their dreams, it is visually realized on screen. Just like in Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?, this serves to break up the talky documentary nature and keep us entertained wile we are being informed.

Overall, American Teen is a documentary that is easy to watch and even easier to fall in love with. The students are real people with whom we can connect, the director’s vision is spot on and her end product caries with it both immense insight and a genuine midwestern charm. To be short: this is one of the best films of the Sundance Film Festival, hands down.

Grade: A+

Keep an eye on our Sundance 2008 Homepage for more from Park City.

Neil Miller is the Founder and Publisher of Film School Rejects. For almost a decade, he has been talking movies on television, the radio, and the Internet.

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