America's first great documentary filmmaker was something of a fraud. In Nanook of the North and Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty depicted, as they say, authenticated fact. He just didn't do it while it was happening. Instead, he had his subjects, chosen for their looks and malleability, recreate scenes from their cultures' lives. Is that reality?
I got a bit of that sensation while watching Nanette Burstein's American Teen, which might better be called American Middle-Class White Midwestern Teen -- With Stupid Parents. What else can you think when Jake, a pimply-faced Indiana high school band geek, shows up at his girlfriend's house with roses -- and no pimples. Seconds later, he's inside the house, handing her the flowers with his face in full acne bloom. Something here was restaged for the cameras, and it makes you wonder what else was.
No matter. American Teen stumbles in a few other ways, most notably in how it's so thoroughly unoriginal and reminiscent of just about every senior-year-of-high-school documentary you can name. It also feels uncomfortably like those silly MTV half-docs Laguna Beach and The Hills, and Burstein's cameras seem to be too lucky too often.
Only the animated sequences, which go inside some of the subjects' heads, are fresh. Shot with a different style of animation for each subject, they're also terribly indulgent, done only to amuse Burstein's intended young audience, in whom she seems to have too little faith. One kid gets to say "fuck," just to remind us they're kids. But the rest get their expletives bleeped, a casualty of the need to deliver a PG-13 film. (Teen-age life is not PG-13.)
I'm not saying that the lives of the half-dozen central characters didn't follow the arc of the story Burstein tells in the film. It just doesn't feel like we're truly watching their lives unfold. Burstein clearly chose her subjects for their feel-good endings: They may have to cry their way through a few crises, but they're all pretty damned lucky by the time it's over. And many of them are more than just high school archetypes: They feel suspiciously like Breakfast Club clones.
Jake (think Anthony Michael Hall type) has a good sense of himself: He knows he's geeky, and in the high school social scene, he's realistic about his prospects without being afraid to take chances. Megan (who could forget Molly Ringwald?) is super-involved and anxious about getting into Notre Dame, where her dad and siblings went. Colin is the funny-guy basketball star whose dad, an Elvis impersonator, expects him to get an athletic scholarship if he wants to go to college.
Hannah (Ally Sheedy, of course) is the artsy girl with a manic-depressive mother and an absent father. The handsome, amiable athlete Mitch (oh, what's his name, Emilio ... Emilio ... Emilio ... Estevez!) dates Hannah for a while because she's different and he can be himself around her. Then he dumps her with a text message.
I've taught students like all of these, and I can tell you that the kids are all right. But in 95 minutes, you can't share their stories with any substance or fidelity, so American Teen finally feels like a ploy to get its target audience to plop down 10 bucks for a matinee and some Sno-Caps. It's terribly simplistic and routine between its familiar life lessons, and Burstein seems to shape her stories to suit her endings.
Then there are the parents. Some of them, like Colin Clemens' dad, the Elvis impersonator, should have their parental rights revoked. "We're comfortable, but just not wealthy," he tells Colin. "Not every kid goes to college. Dad doesn't have money for college, but if you get 12 rebounds ..." I guess being Elvis is too important to him to rustle up tuition even for a lousy state university.
It's hard to say what Burstein wants us to think of irresponsible parents like some of the ones we see in American Teen. If she's indicting them subtly, then it's the only subtle thing in her film. Burstein later gives Mr. Clemens a few words with which to redeem himself, although fortunately, he doesn't need to: Colin gets his scholarship. And Hannah gets into film school, which probably was a lot easier for a girl from Indiana to do after she's starred in another filmmaker's documentary.
Starts Fri., Aug. 15.