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TUXEDO JUNCTION:Jake Tusing pursues an elusive prom date in 'American Teen.'

High School Confidential

Nanette Burstein's remarkable documentary, 'American Teen,' tracks four Indiana high schoolers through the year

By Richard von Busack

PAY NO MIND to the title of Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen. What sounds like John Hughes all over again is actually much more like Studs Terkel. Burstein filmed the 2005–06 term at the only high school in Warsaw, Ind., on the highway between Gary and Fort Wayne. "Warsaw boasts the title of 'Orthopedic Manufacturing Capital of the World,'" according to the Kosciusko County website.

Burstein focuses on four students. Megan is the school's de jure homecoming queen and de facto ruler of the campus. Gawky Colin is high-ranking, too, as he's a member of the basketball team. But his only hope of going to college is either getting an athletic scholarship or joining the Army.

Acne-afflicted Jake lacks social skills but is desperate to find a girlfriend: "I love all the ladies, but the ladies do not love me." As a result, he's spending his year holed up and playing The Legend of Zelda obsessively while going on abortive short-term dates.

Fresh-faced Hannah is the art girl, a painter, a filmmaker and a guitarist seen covering Neil Diamond's "Cherry, Cherry." Hannah comes close to dropping out after being dumped by two separate boyfriends during the school year. (One gets rid of her via text message.) In the end, Hannah nurses one hope: to get out of Indiana and go to San Francisco. 

The visual difference between cinéma vérité and a Hollywood product means little in 2008; young movie watchers are used to the small-camera, shaky "authentic" approach. American Teen is a stealth documentary, certain to be mistaken for fiction. And Burstein has studiously shaped the material like a teen comedy, with adults and teachers playing only minor, usually comic, roles.

In this film, it's not what the adults do to the teens, it's what they do to each other. Thwarted at her choice of theme for the senior prom, Megan spray-paints the word "FAG" with window paint on a rival's house and then gets hauled into the principal's office for it. (Her father: "That was stupid. What was more stupid is you couldn't do it and not get caught.")

The mean queen bee is hiding her own torment over a family tragedy, but Burstein treats her to some gentle sarcasm in one of American Teen's animated sequences. Jake's fantasies are of video-game sword wielding; Hannah's subconscious has a Tim Burton–like gothic doll languishing in a cobwebbed basement. But Megan dreams of the glories of Notre Dame University, where she can't wait to go. Burstein pictures this as legions of faceless animated pictograph students holding hands under the radiant tower of the school.

It's not that Warsaw Community High School is a hellhole. It looks more prosperous than the schools we're used to in California—it's new and well built. Someone's trying to educate the students. One school wall has a mural of Francis Cugat's famous original cover illustration for The Great Gatsby.

But are the Warsaw students learning anything that would protect them against the social pressures around them? Burstein thinks not. She insists that the only thing that matters to these students is to find mates and to get into college. She also edits out the huge role religion is supposed to play in the public sphere in northern Indiana. And there's no comment on politics, other than a silent display cabinet with a triangularly folded flag and pictures of some of the school's dead veterans. 

On the one hand, the director is reporting on social class strata that haven't budged in Indiana since Booth Tarkington was alive. (Maybe I wasn't seeing this right, but it looked like Megan's Midwestern castle got bigger in every subsequent exterior shot.) On the other hand, the director is dealing with a group of students who are more accustomed to spilling their guts online. They're armed with cameras every minute. Burstein had unique access to these students. But she also shaped this film, keeping this from being a boring series of straight-to-the-lens confessionals.

American Teen is an instant classic of teenage life and, like the recently rereleased-on-DVD Heathers, it makes you laugh at adolescent tragedy you never thought you would find funny. Megan and her crowd intercept a photo of a topless female student that she foolishly emailed to a boy; the film fractures into split screen, first double, then quadruple sections, as the photo travels over the town. The sequence is mean and hilarious, in the way vicious high school humor is, when the queen bees make their crank calls to the victim. ("Your priest saw the picture. God saw the picture. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you are sentenced to be a slut for the rest of your life.")

But that's the double standard talking. Usually, one deplores American teens on the loose at Baja's horrible industrial margarita-pumping stations. But this short time-out is given context when Jake flees Indiana for a weekend. The bottom-of-the-social-caste nerd, who can only plead mercy to the local girls for having a monotonous voice and a homemade haircut, gets kissed, danced with and rubbed up by girls gone wild. It's like he died and went to heaven.

American Teen provides a similar vacation. It's fascinating meeting these people, getting to know them and feeling forgotten echoes of one's own adolescent pain. And then: what a relief it is to go back to the real world.

Movie Times AMERICAN TEEN  (PG-13; 95 min.), a documentary by Nanette Burstein, plays at selected theaters.

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