Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

American Teen

Review by Matthew Frendo

Cinéma vérité roughly translates to "cinema of truth".  It's a style of documentary filmmaking that combines naturalistic elements with editing, staged setups, and use of the camera to provoke its subject matter.  Edgar Morin once wrote concerning the topic, "There are two ways to conceive of the cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. In the same way, there were two ways to conceive cinéma vérité. The first was to pretend that you brought truth. The second was to pose the problem of truth."  An example of the latter would be Werner Herzog's recent Encounters at the End of the World or Grizzly Man, while an example of the former (granted, in the worst possible scenario) is MTV's The Real World.  American Teen, somehow or other, manages to fall in the middle.

I see today's teens on MTV's Spring Break and find the whole lot, to be honest, extremely annoying.  The guys tend to be mindless cretins with all the sensitivity and brain function of a rabid mongoose, and most of the girls tend to have little less to say than a high scream that has the effect of adding shrinkage to my nether regions (never a happy prospect).  So I found myself checking the time before the movie had even started.

And that was the last time I checked it until the end.  After about five minutes, I was absolutely engaged in the characters being presented.  Basically, American Teen is a documentary about high school seniors in Indiana, following them through their entire last year of school.  It's an interesting set piece in two ways: first, you really do get to love these characters, and second, it tells a bunch about what our school system (and out overall American way of life) teaches to its youth.  I'll go into the point #1 first.  There are five main kids the film centers on, all of which have a stereotype.  There's the valedictorian/all-American girl, the basketball playing jock, the artistic-in-a-town-with-no-art girl, the "geek" boy, and the ultra-popular prom king.  While we can all put ourselves in one of these groups (I was probably a mix of the art kid and geek kid), you will relate to all of them on the most basic level there is: that of being human. 

For example, Megan (the all-American girl) is about as far away as possible from my high school experience.  She is mean at times, snotty, ambitious, and, hell, even straight vicious.  You will not like her at points during this movie.  Yet, when I heard how she was still dealing with her sister's death by suicide two years before, I totally understood why she did what she did.  Her "viciousness" was birthed from pain.  When my dad passed (and I was a bit older than she was), I was exactly the same way.  The darkness hits us all at times, no matter what clique we belong(ed) in.

Besides the way it relates people together, it's also a very interesting statement on our society's values that we teach to the next generation.  The main values that seem to be sought after are ambition, ruthlessness (when needed), and conformity.  To use the example of Megan again, her goal is to get into Notre Dame.  Her father and all her brothers attended the school, and we see how her sense of self-worth is intertwined with where she will go to school for the next five or so years.  Even at this young age, ambition and status are inherent aspects of her self-image, which seems ready to crumble if she does not achieve her goal.  This is not much different from the employment status relied on by so many adults in society, and we can see firsthand how it looks coming from one who should not be there yet.  Megan is a very beautiful girl, both on the inside and out, and yet, we see how much more she would blossom as a person, if she could be content with being driven, instead of being obsessed.  In an altogether unseen take on American culture, I fell in love with the girl for who she is, knowing that, in all probability, I may hate what she is to become.

This is definitely a film worth checking out, if you're given the chance.  I would not wait on this one, as its limited release definitely lives up to the title (it played for all of a week in my city).  It will make you long for high school while simultaneously thanking God that you don't have to go back.

3 ½ / 5 stars

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