In a small Indiana suburb, four teenagers are embarking on their senior year. Hannah is steadfastly independent, with filmmaking dreams and boy troubles; Colin is a star of the basketball team, feeling the pressure to perform and take his gifts to the college level; Jake is the band geek who desperately wants love, but can't quite overcome his severe social limitations; and Megan is the popular girl (kinda) who is dying to get into Notre Dame to impress her family, losing her circle of friends in the process.
It's easy to become jaded about the authenticity of the modern documentary; inundated with manufactured moments of "truth," it's the tendency these days to allow the images to do all the talking, letting responsibility to accuracy fall by the wayside. I'm not immune to the effects of staging realism to better construct a point of view, but "American Teen" smells iffy from frame one: a documentary arbitrarily assembled to cash in on the trendy wave of reality melodrama.
Director Nanette Burstein simply oversteps her abilities with this subject matter, pushing the kids into ill-fitting stereotypes to better divide the film into digestible segments, or perhaps offering simpler identity labels to prevent deeper consideration from the viewer. "American Teen" is aggressively threadbare, feeling like a 90-minute trailer for an entire school year of riveting incidents; the film is edited carelessly as it leaps around from scene to scene, failing to fabricate any sort of characterization or tension within the tissue-thin borders of the film's structure. It's insulting how Burstein leaves so many questions and critical personality development out in the cold, cruelly relying on humiliation to engage the viewer, forgoing a welcome dimensional portrait to hurl tomatoes at these clearly damaged kids.
Truthfully, I'm not sure how to even approach "American Teen." It's all giggly fun and games watching the subjects foul up their lives and strike out on the playing field of love, then Megan reveals her sister committed suicide. Brakes like this are applied constantly to the film, tossing around the tone like a hot potato, leaving the picture somewhere between a Clearasil version of a Christopher Guest film and "Degrassi" without depression medication.
Even worse, Burstein appears to be egging the bad times on, riding along with Megan as she vandalizes a rival's home, or observing Hannah as she skips 17 days of school after a harsh break-up with a longtime boyfriend. I'm not asking the filmmaker to interfere with bad decisions or head-spinning emotional trauma, but assembling them in a sloppy feature documentary reeks of character assassination and, even worse, exploitation, especially since the camera-aware kids are all under 18 and thirsty for fame.
Of course, to get upset with the brainless antics of "American Teen" is to admit faith in the reality of the production. Burstein manipulates the footage to absurd lengths, coaching reactions from the kids and inventing text-messaging drama. The whole film simply feels staged; a put-on to prey upon the universal guilty pleasure of watching high school kids embarrass themselves with generous displays of insecurity and stupidity, because, let's face it, everyone wants to see that.
"American Teen" is too insidious to be dismissed as careless, and with some condescending animated sequences (included to embellish thoughts the kids can't possibly articulate), Burstein ultimately appears to loathe her subjects - most certainly not the intended mood of the piece. "American Teen" is hardly the cinema verite experience it wants to be, and while I'm not suggesting these droning, uncharismatic teenagers deserve sympathy, the real pocket of disdain should be reserved for Burstein and her negligent, contrived direction of this con game.