Saturday, October 18, 2008

London Film Festival Day 4 - AMERICAN TEEN

I had the misfortune of watching AMERICAN TEEN in a double-bill with the brilliant short documentary KIDS + MONEY. Ostensibly covering the same material - modern American teenage life - KIDS + MONEY was everything that AMERICAN TEEN wasn't - insightful, contemporary, disturbing, authentic. By contrast, AMERICAN TEEN seemed stagey, forced, incredible and addied nothing to cinema's treatment of teenage experience since THE BREAKFAST CLUB.

Documentarian Nanette Burstein (THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE) doesn't help her own case by pandering to the social stereotypes she is trying to investigate. In her year in the life of "normal" teenagers in Warsaw, Indiana, she picks four kids to follow who can easily be labelled as the Popular Princess; Jock; Weirdo and Geek. Starting from that premise she engineers/edits footage to comply with those stereotypes.

So Megan Krizmanich, the popular princess is shown to be a superficial bitch - burning a friend's rep by sending a topless photo of her round the school and leaving hateful voice messages on her answerphone. Colin Clemens, the Jock, has essentially no personality and activity off the basketball court. The "weirdo" - a charming kid called Hannah Bailey - is intruded upon in the most callous manner - with Burstein almost following her inside her depresssion. And geek Jake Tussing is shown getting serially dumped and cheated upon by girls, but getting his revenge in video-game fantasies.

This documentary has attracted a lot of controversy as to how far it really was reality TV. It won the documentary award at Sundance, after all, and Burstein has defended it fiercely as being authentic. Frankly I think this misses the point. Whether or not the footage is unmediated (and clearly no footage is ever 100% unmediated), the key point is that it *seems* staged. Burstein has to take responsibility for the fact that her choices - taping reaction shots on either side of a phone call; the use of animation; setting relationships to cheesy love songs as montages - all undermine the documentary feel of the film. I found these devices alienated be from the footage and I found it hard to empathise with these stagey events.

I might have overlooked the staged feel if the documentary had had anything meaningful to say about contemporary teenage life - but frankly this adds nothing to whaat John Hughes said in the 80s.

AMERICAN TEEN played Sundance, where Nanette Burstein won the award for Best Director - Documentary, and London 2008. It opened in the US earlier this year and is currently on release in Japan. It opens in the UK on November 7th and in Australia on November 27th.

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