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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » American Teen
American Teen
Paramount // PG-13 // December 21, 2008
List Price: $29.99
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted December 15, 2008 | E-mail the Author
C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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Note: As of this writing, this disc is only available at Target stores.

The Movie:

Why anyone would want to relive high school is beyond me. With its rigid social caste system, never-ending peer pressures and enough melodrama to fill a night of primetime for Telemundo, high school is a rite of passage that tends to seem better once you're a long, long way away from it.

Chances are a torrent of memories, both good and bad, will come rushing back to viewers of American Teen, a wonderful documentary that follows several teenagers maneuvering their way through senior year. But fear not: It's only a movie (unless you actually are in high school, in which case you can always placate yourself with the knowledge that college is a helluva lot better).

In the white-bread hamlet of Warsaw, Ind., Oscar-nominated documentary maker Nanette Burstein spent a school year with cameras rolling on a handful of high school archetypes who, at first blush, look as if they've parachuted in from an Eighties-era John Hughes movie. There is artsy rebel Hannah Bailey, who dreams of being a filmmaker and worries that she will inherit her mom's clinical depression. Nice-guy athlete Colin Clemens is warned by his father that he needs to win a basketball scholarship if he wants to avoid the Army. Self-proclaimed band geek Jake Tusing pines for a girlfriend, but doesn't know how to talk to girls. And lording over them all is high school princess Megan Krizmanich, an attractive and popular blond with the temperament of a cobra.

Burstein's approach is a far cry from cinema vérité. Borrowing a page from the reality-television playbook, the filmmaker shapes tightly constructed narratives from more than 1,000 hours of footage. Hannah is dumped by her boyfriend, spirals into a deep depression and stops going to school before she strikes up an unlikely romance with class heartthrob Mitch Reinholt. Colin, under intense pressure from his ex-jock-turned-Elvis impersonator dad, starts to choke on the basketball court. Jake embarks on a series of awkward, hilarious and cringe-worthy dates. Megan dabbles in evil shenanigans that destroy reputations of friend and foe alike.

American Teen also breaks with traditional documentaries by its use of several creative flourishes. Burstein, whose credits include the hugely entertaining The Kid Stays in the Picture, illustrates the psyches of her protagonists through brief animated vignettes. Hannah's fear of mental illness, for example, is depicted in a nightmarish clip reminiscent of the Quay brothers' stop-motion animation. The romantic yearnings of Jake, an admitted videogame junkie, are manifest in a fantasy parodying "Legend of Zelda."

The animation might irk documentary purists, but they work in this film's context. American Teen is about high school, obviously, but it also reflects the implications of a media-saturated generation. Internet technology allows Megan to casually humiliate a friend by mass-emailing photos that the girl had intended only for her boyfriend. One of the film's crueler moments involves a text-message breakup. While American Teen shows that high school hasn't changed in a lot of respects, it also reveals how a media-savvy Facebook generation must navigate a brave new world of high-tech challenges.

Engrossing and evocative, American Teen nevertheless drew some flack during its theatrical release. Detractors grumbled that Burstein manipulated what unfolds on screen, pointing to some likely staged shots and scenes of breathtakingly naked emotion as evidence that the filmmaker's camera prompted the teens to act in specific ways.

I don't buy it. To be more precise, I don't buy that the ever-present camera influenced reality any more than documentaries always do. Awareness of being watched invariably impacts how someone acts. That doesn't diminish the essential truth of what is captured on film, particularly if the subjects are part of a generation entrenched in technology that erodes notions of privacy. For me, American Teen is a refreshing and indelible work.

The DVD

The Video:

Presented in widescreen 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 screens, American Teen boasts solid picture quality with strong lines and well-saturated colors. The documentary, shot on digital film, employs a naturalistic look that isn't especially visually arresting, but the print transfer is fine.

The Audio:

The Dolby Digital 5.1 is sharp and clear, and it showcases a great alt-rock soundtrack featuring the likes of MGMT, Black Kids, Frou Frou and the New Pornographers. A Spanish-language track is also available, with optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

Extras:

The four-minute, 13-second Pop Quiz: Cast Interviews isn't particularly insightful (the cast members are pals now, we learn). Six deleted scenes can be viewed separately or with the "play all" option. Some of it is interesting - especially the material involving Hannah -- but some clips feel interminable, such as an awkward post-date exchange between Jake and a would-be girlfriend. Collective running time is just past 17 minutes.

Ten so-called Hannah blogs (aggregate length 18:50), cut to promote the film prior to its theatrical release, should satiate fans of the young woman.

A handful of character trailers has an aggregate running time of five minutes, 27 seconds. Rounding things out are previews of Defiance, The Duchess, Ghost Town, Iron Man, Son of Rambow and How She Move.

Final Thoughts:

It won't be mistaken for a Frederick Wiseman doc, but Nanette Burstein's American Teen is an engrossing, beautifully crafted motion picture that takes viewers through a tumultous senior year for five Indiana teenagers. An underwhelming set of extras is disappointing - a commentary with the principal players would have been welcome - but the film is still terrific, and well worth checking out.

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