We're prepared to be in the minority of viewers who could pretty much take or leave American Teen, director Nanette Burstein's new documentary about the turbulent senior years of five Indiana high-schoolers. While the film has found a fairly inspired critical following and scored consistent audience accolades during its short time on the festival circuit (starting at Sundance, where Paramount Vantage bought it for around $1 million), we tend to like our characters a little more relatable, our drama a little less forced, our resolutions a little less predictable. And our documentaries a little more... documentary.The rap on American Teen, as perhaps best chronicled in an unusual LA Times two-fer about its deceptive marketing and equally deceptive filmmaking, is an illusion of veracity that even Vantage has sought to downplay. The next judgment that doesn't invoke John Hughes and/or The Breakfast Club (neither of whose anxious appeal Teen so much as touches, let alone grasps) will be the first. Which isn't Burstein's fault, of course. But in her careful, interwoven cultivation of jock, princess, geek, indie-girl and the nondescript cute guy who floats between them, she goes unquestionably puppetmaster over everything and everyone, so much so that you'd think her budget has a line-item for serendipity. She's everywhere at once as a girl's nude photo circulates the entirety of the Warsaw High School student body's cell phones and e-mail inboxes; she pushes a camera dolly through the school's corridors, lest shots of her subjects walking lack for style or energy. Nevertheless, she defended herself in the Times:
"I was really surprised actually and have been upset by it," Burstein said of the level of pushback American Teen has generated. "There's accusations that it's staged and scripted and that I went after the stereotypes, and it's just not true. "I think it's unusual to have a very narrative documentary, so people aren't used to it," she continued. I think people have a hard time believing teenagers are willing to be that intimate on camera. So sometimes I feel I'm being criticized for what the film's achievements are." Burstein also believes she's being targeted for wanting to make a documentary film with broad appeal, which runs counter to the image many have of docs as dry, wonky films driven by policy and ideology.
There probably is some truth to this latter point, as aggressively as Vantage is pushing Teen everywhere from the Web to the multiplex, with its Hughes-derivative poster art conspicuously sandwiched between those for fare as populist as The Mummy 3 and Step Brothers. This isn't the way things are done among the tony doc crowd, a sliver of which is lucky these days to get one screen for one week let alone five and counting through at least mid-August. Again, not Burstein's fault. But she is the one playing fast and loose with animation breaks, voice-overs, garden-variety teen angst and even an ending retrofit for a sequel if enough suckers fall for her schtick. That potential alone makes American Teen — or at least its opening-weekend numbers — worth watching; if TV is any indication, reality's never easier to love than when it's fake.