"American Teen" is an interesting, but problematic look at a group of "typical" teens in this predominantly white, middle class high school in a "red state". Part of the problem with "Teen" is that is does pick a group of "typical" teens and focuses on them. There's the jock, Colin, who is the star basketball player, trying to earn an athletic scholarship for college. Hannah is the dark, emotional one who is so intent on leaving the state for California, she tries to stay out of a romantic relationship for fear it will derail her determination. Megan is the popular girl, the student body president, and her parents are also among the richest in town, so she is, of course, spoiled. Jake is the nerd who spends every waking moment trying to find a girlfriend or playing video games. He is extremely awkward whenever he approaches a girl, so an offhand commitment from a girl for a date in "a few weeks" is reason to celebrate. Then, there's Mitch, the handsome boy, a jock, he hangs out with the in-crowd, but also falls in love with people outside of this circle.
The filmmakers follow each of these students for a year, capturing every one of their good and bad moments. That's a lot of footage and distilling it to a feature length film makes it seem rushed. Since we are watching the most compelling moments, we are missing the "little" moments that would make a film like this really speak to us. Given the film is co-produced by Paramount Pictures, which owns MTV, I don't understand why they didn't just make it a mini-series for the cable network. More time would allow us to get to know these people and see how real they actually are. Such a project might also go along way towards making MTV seem less vapid.
What time we do spend with these kids is interesting, but far too familiar to provide any new insight. We watch Megan as she TPs a guy's house because he has suggested a "Jungle Theme" for their prom and she wants something else. She spray paints something nasty on his bedroom window. Naturally, she gets caught and just as naturally, because her father is one of the richest people in town, she gets a mild slap on the wrist. Also, as soon as we learn her dad is an alumnus of Notre Dame, and all of her brothers and sisters have gone to Notre Dame as well, you know she will be under a lot of pressure to get into dad's favorite school. Just as soon as Hannah recovers from a break-up and announces she is going to stay away from boys for the rest of the year, her goal to move to California is too important, you know what will happen. And sure enough. As soon as Colin's sports scholarship hinges on his performance in one key basketball game, you know what will happen. And because it is so predictable, it becomes a bit of a labor to sit through.
But as you wade through these moments, there are key moments that help to make the documentary worth watching. When Hannah's boyfriend breaks up with her, she suffers sever depression and can't even cope with the idea of going back to school, of people looking at her and laughing at her. As we watch her deal with these problems, we learn a little about her family life. She lives with her grandmother and the reasons her mother and father are not in the picture are interesting and unusual, helping to explain a lot about Hannah's life.
As stereotypical as "The Jock's" story is, it is also interesting to watch his relationship with his dad. Colin's dad is an Elvis impersonator at a local hotel buffet, entertaining the blue hairs and barely scraping by. But he enjoys what he does and wouldn't give it up for a minute. There is a brief scene of Colin in the audience, watching his dad, alternately grimacing due to the corniness and showing more than a little pride in his dad's performance.
As Megan is the most popular girl in school, she had the most friends and fights with them when she feels the least bit slighted. But as Megan's hopes of going to Notre Dame, her dad's alma mater, began to take hold, we learn a little about the family that helps to explain a lot about everyone's behavior.
Less successful are the frequent attempts to further illuminate the things the teens are saying. Jake, the "Nerd", is a huge video game fan and his favorite game is "Final Fantasy". So, when he starts talking about how much he would like to find a girlfriend, the story becomes animated just like a "Final Fantasy" game, with Jake as the lead character (you can tell this because the video game avatar suddenly has pimples and looks just like Jake). Later, as Hannah is relating an incident, her story becomes an anime featuring her. There are other examples of this and they take us completely out of the story, removing us from any connection with these teens.
"American Teen" has some good things going for it, but it also has some things detracting from the story of these 'typical teens'. I think the filmmakers would have been better served by not going for such obvious clichés when looking for the subjects they would follow. Mix it up a bit and they would probably have been able to delve deeper into this idea and present some more interesting thoughts and ideas.
As it is, "American Teen" is worth watching, but just.