American Teen: The Downside of "Reality"

A few days ago I saw a moving documentary by Nanette Burstein called "American Teen." It follows the lives of a bunch of kids during their senior year of high school in the small Midwestern town of Warsaw, Indiana. The weird thing about the film is that it's being marketed not as a documentary, but as a teen flick, a modern-day John Hughes film. Check out the crazy ad campaign that has these real characters aping the poses of the teens in Hughes' popular film, "The Breakfast Club."

Obviously the similarity between the two posters is deliberate, even down to the clothes they're wearing. What I don't get is who the studio is trying to reach with this ad campaign. Certainly not people my age who saw "The Breakfast Club" over twenty years ago. My 13-year-old daughter loves "The Breakfast Club" which she's watched on DVD, but I'm not sure she or any of her friends would recognize the poster image. Leah and I saw the previews for "American Teen" together. When I told her this morning that I saw the film she said that she really wanted to see it. But when I asked if she realized it was a documentary about a group of real kids in a real high school in Indiana, she seemed disappointed and said that made her want to see it less. I guess Leah's reaction explains the reason for the deceptive marketing. But I really don't get it, I think the fact that it's a documentary makes it way more powerful, not less! Several articles I read about the film mention how they avoided using the "D" word in the promotional materials. When did documentaries become something film studios needed to hide? It's one of my favorite art forms--what is more effective than an excellent documentary?

I guess I'm being a bit naïve here. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the top-grossing documentary of all time with a box office take of $119 million since its release in 2004. That's huge, of course, especially for a documentary, but it's still only a third of what "The Dark Knight" grossed in its first weekend. The reality is that most people are more likely to watch documentaries on TV, if at all, but they go out to the movies for pure escapism. I'd take a good documentary over most feature films any day. But they are not easy sells to the studios and most documentary filmmakers have a hell of a time getting funding or a distribution deal.

I remember what a big deal Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" was when it came out in 2006 and yet it "only" made $24 million. Leah recently saw this film in her humanities class at school and I suppose that's the kind of afterlife the makers of documentaries dream of. I was surprised by Leah's negative reaction about "American Teen" being a documentary because I've taken her to so many that she's loved--films such as "Super Size Me" (she's never touched anything form McDonald's since), the delightful "Mad Hot Ballroom," and the moving "Spellbound." Leah and I both sobbed through those last two, but I doubt the studios were all that moved by their respective theatrical grosses of $8.1 and $5.7 million. That's still on the high side when you look at the list of the Top 500 documentaries in terms of their box office receipts. Leah also loved the poignant "Paper Clips" (which earned $1.1 million) and the controversial "Jesus Camp" ($902,000). I've written about many other documentaries over the years, including such outstanding films as:

"The Fog of War" ($4.2 million)

"Born into Brothels ($3.5 million)

"Grizzly Man" ($3.1 million)

"Capturing the Friedmans ($3.1 million)

"The Endurance: Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure" ($2.4 million)

"The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" ($1.7 million)

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" ($1.6 million)

"Anne Frank Remembered" ($1.3 million)

"In the Shadow of the Moon" ($1.1 million)

"The Eyes of Tammy Faye" ($1 million)

"35 Up" ($922,000)

"Trembling Before G-d" ($788,000)

"For All Mankind" ($770,000)

All of those are in the Top 100. The film made about my brother-in-law Jeff Tweedy (and featuring my sister and nephews), "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart," comes in at #123 with a total domestic gross of $445,522, right after "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" and "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl." Still a very respectable take for a documentary but probably less than the catering budget on a typical superhero film. Oy, listen to me with all these numbers, you'd think I was the money-obsessed studio executive! I'm just listing these figures here to educate myself on the realities of the documentary world. I understand it better, but I'm still saddened that Paramount Vantage feels it needs to pass off an excellent film like "American Teen" as a non-documentary. It reminds me of how the previews for foreign films that try to "cross over" never include a word of dialogue because the American distributors think audiences will stay away in droves if they know they're going to have to read a subtitle. Is the American movie-going public really that stupid? I think not.

Apparently there was a bidding war at Sundance for "American Teen" and I can't blame director Nanette Burstein (who also made the excellent "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture") for wanting her film to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. After spending a few million for the American rights, I'm sure Paramount had their marketing wunderkinds working overtime to come up with a plan that would get the film into the multiplexes. But is pitching it as a modern-day "Breakfast Club" the best they could do?

On the other hand, Burstein does a good job shoehorning the five featured kids into the teen archetypes seen in Hughes' film. Megan Krizmanich is the Princess. She lives happily at the top of the food chain and is attractive, confident, and ruthless. We see that she is perfectly willing to humiliate a friend if her power is threatened in any way. But her life is not without its stresses. Megan's parents desperately want her to get accepted at Notre Dame and she worries that she'll disappoint them. Hannah Bailey is the Rebel who dreams of getting the hell out of Indiana and moving to California to make movies. She marches to her own drummer but is devastated by two break-ups during her senior year and terrified she will succumb to the mental illness that has ruined her mother's life. Hannah lives with her grandmother but her damaged parents appear in the film long enough to tell her she's not special enough to make it in on her own in California. Oy. Mitch Reinholt is the Hearthrob. During the course of the year he takes a liking to quirky Hannah. He tries to introduce her into his group of popular friends but ultimately worries about his social standing at the school and cruelly dumps her via text message. Colin Clemens is the Jock, the star of the high school basketball team. He seems to have it all but we see the intense pressure he's under from his family to get an athletic scholarship. His father once had dreams of making it in pro sports and now, working as an Elvis impersonator, he is living vicariously through his son's achievements on the basketball court. Will Colin choke from all this pressure and screw up his future? Jake Tusing is the Geek who is painfully shy but desperate for a girlfriend. Jake is so awkward that he dreams of going somewhere new for college and reinventing himself, possibly as a "Mr. Muscles," if he works out a lot.

I was riveted throughout the film and fully engaged in the stories of these teens, especially the two I could most relate to -- misfits Hannah and Jake. In Hannah I recognized my own "I'm above all this crap" high school stance that I used to camouflage my insecurities and my secret desire to fit in with the kids I thought I had no time for. I could well relate to Jake's geekiness and wanted to shout at the screen, "Just hold tight, Jake, it's all going to work out. Your skin is going to clear up, you're going to learn how to talk to girls, and you're going to find the right niche of friends." I found Jake completely endearing although he was even odder than I was with his disturbing collections of taxidermied animals and his obsession with video games. But for me, Hannah is the emotional linchpin of the film. When a sudden break-up with her first boyfriend leaves her clinically depressed and she refuses to go to school, I was so fearful of her not getting into college and out of Warsaw that I wanted to rush over and drive her to class myself. When it looks like she might choose to bow to pressure and stay in Indiana rather than pursuing her dreams in California, I wanted to ask my wife if we could adopt the 18-year-old and send her to USC. I knew many kids like Megan, Mitch, and Colin, but they were in different worlds. Yet Burstein showed the very real adolescent horrors experienced by the kids who seem to have it all and it made you care for them as well.

I always wonder why anyone would agree to be so publicly exposed in this way. Of course today, with the popularity of so-called Reality TV, the shock factor of watching the real lives of people has completely worn off. I remember when the PBS series "An American Family," by documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond, premiered in 1973 when I was a freshman in high school, it was a sensation. I became completely addicted to the story of the Loud family from Santa Barbara and I was glued to the set as Bill and Pat Loud's marriage disintegrated before our eyes, as their oldest son Lance came out of the closet and moved to the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and as the other kids Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele went through the horrors of adolescence in their privileged affluent world.

The Louds reunited on camera a few times, once in 1983 and once in 2003 when 50-year-old Lance Loud was dying of AIDS. But despite the fame and opportunity the show afforded them (Lance in particular became a darling of the avant-garde), several members of the Loud family were bitter about their experience and regretted taking part in it. With no precedent, they weren't prepared for the way the country dissected their lives and judged their actions as depicted on the screen. Even Lance said that he thought the filmmakers had intentionally edited the series to make him seem obnoxious and grating.

I couldn't help but wonder if the subjects in "American Teen" had any misgivings about their participation in this film. From the interviews I've seen since the film opened last Friday, it doesn't look like it. Popular girl Megan, now a sophomore at Notre Dame (yes, she got in -- sorry for that spoiler!), seems especially articulate and appealing -- a big surprise since she comes across as a mean whack-job in the film. An episode involving Megan forwarding a topless picture of a classmate to everyone in the school and then making cruel prank calls to the teen is particularly chilling. And the way Mitch dumps Hannah makes him seem like a Class A creep but there the two of them are promoting the film together. In the short text updates during the closing credits, Megan assures us that since the film was made she's matured. A lot. And Mitch self-consciously swears that he'll never break up with anyone by text message again.

I wonder how I would have come off in such a series. Here is the page from my yearbook that introduces the section for the senior class at Von Steuben High School in Chicago. It could serve as a poster for the 1976 version of "American Teen." There I am in the top left, the troubled, disgruntled geek, sleepwalking through many of my classes and trying my best not to engage with my classmates. On the top right are the jocks, lording over the gymnasium like mini-Mengeles, deciding who will live and who will die. Bottom left is the Class Clown, a popular guy who uses his outgoing humor to bop between several social strata at the school. And in the bottom right is a member of the popular set, very involved in all school activities, head of the afterschool clubs, and always wearing the right makeup and stylish clothes (in this case the dreaded 70s elephant bells!). While it would be fascinating to watch today, may I express my gratitude that such a documentary was never made?

Now, partly because of the desire to blur the lines of documentary filmmaking, Nanette Burstein is getting criticized by some for staging scenes and even scripting the film. I believe her vehement statements that these claims are completely false. "I was really surprised actually and have been upset by it," Burstein said of these critics. "I think it's unusual to have a very narrative documentary, so people aren't used to it. I think people have a hard time believing teenagers are willing to be that intimate on camera. So sometimes I feel I'm being criticized for what the film's achievements are." The director said she's being targeted for wanting to make a documentary film with broad appeal. "I do want as many people to see it as possible," Burstein said, "and I'm not approaching it with as much of a political agenda as more of an anthropological one. And I want to entertain people, I want to move them in the same way a fiction film would."

I worry about the young stars of "American Teen." They've been traveling the country together to promote the film and I fear that their sudden celebrity may not be a good thing. As part of the ad campaign, Paramount has set up glitzy Facebook pages for each of the "characters," inviting fans to become their "friends." Even more disturbing is seeing this group pal around with each other. Back at Warsaw High School, someone like Megan never would have given Hannah the time of day and she would have looked straight through Jake, not seeing him at all. I thought that seeing them hanging out and joking around with each other during interviews would be somehow reassuring but instead it seems an affront to the natural world order. Oh, don't get me wrong, I think shedding these ridiculous cliques and finding common ground with people from other social groups is a very important part of growing up. It took me until my 30th high school reunion to fully let go of some of my biases about my former classmates and jump over that once impenetrable barricade. But I think such a move needs to come naturally as a result of age, experience, and maturity. If these kids hadn't made this film, there's no way they would be palling around together. I guess there's one social group that trumps all others. Megan, Jake, Hannah, Mitch, and Colin are now members of the most coveted clique among adolescents in this country:

The Famous Kids.