Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sundance at BAM Opening Night: American Teen


Once again the Sundance Film Festival has come to Brooklyn for a week of narratives, documentaries, short films, and music, and apparently a few art exhibits. I have several tickets to films playing this year-some of them coming out in the next few weeks, and some of them without a distributor yet, but no matter the case I am sure that it will be like every other festival-some great, some so-so, and some so bad that I would never want to see them again. With the opening night selection of "American Teen" we are already off to a bad start. A few other titles that I'll be seeing in the next few days that could be of interest are the documentary "Man on Wire," the Sam Rockwell dark comedy "Choke," "Frozen River," and "Ballast,"-the latter of which I am looking forward to after a reliable recommendation came my way.

The opening night festivities were standard-a few speakers for twenty minutes batting off names of folks that I could really care less about. It was funny the applause that was received when the woman thanked one of the sponsors which was a vodka company. And there was a speech like the master of all BS artists Marty Markowitz, and I was surprised by how many applause he got-apparently not many of the people in the crowd were from the area. And then there was a little 'thank you' from Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who are on the board at BAM. And than the film started-

"American Teen" will likely be the documentary of the summer that many flock to see. It should make a great deal of money, and I really can see several folks buying into it. Charting the senior year of a group of high school students at a small school in Indiana-focusing in on five of them-Nanette Burstein tries to craft a mosaic of growing up and coming of age-a subject that I could relate to strongly as I have recently graduated high school and have started college. The five kids are Hannah Bailey-a spunky, artistic, freewheeling young girl whose heart was recently broken by her boyfriend of two years. Then there is Colin Clemens, the high school jock who hopes to get to college on a basketball scholarship because his parents don't have enough money to pay for it on their own. Then there is Megan Krizmanich, the high school princess who has her strong clique of friends-two of whom seem to have some kind of odd fling happening between them which she doesn't seem to like. There is Mitch Reinholt, a rather popular boy who has interest in Hannah. And lastly there is Jake Tusing, the loner type fresh with a face full of acne and long black hair that just about covers his eyes. Interested in video games and not having many friends, Jake really just wants a girlfriend, and finds himself heartbroken a few times over in the search for the right one. And so we follow these five kids during their year long endeavors-through fights, heartbreak, college acceptances, and lastly the big senior prom.

My problems with the movie lie completely with the way the material is handed. There is a good documentary here, just not in the hands of a very good documentary film maker. I get the idea that Burstein wants to try and steer clear of the stereotypes of the typical high school stories, and yet that is exactly what she feeds into. By finding herself with subjects of a small town, it becomes easier to do so. My high school was nothing like the high school depicted here or in the John Hughes movies-there was no jocks, there was no importance in sports, there were hardly any cliques. It was almost like a large united community in a way. But the thing with that structure is that there is no real conflict there. By fitting themselves into the common stereotypes of high school, she is able to manipulate conflict and create her movie. She works with conflict that has been seen before in fiction films-there is even a "big game" segment towards the end of the movie where the final shot is shown in a slow motion scene. And by seeing how the five she picks end up getting rather content and happy and satisfying endings, I wonder if there were any subjects that she focused on and dropped because of their uneventful conclusions-namely Mitch, who hardly gets any type of arc and seems to only be in the film as much as he is because it completes the five "Breakfast Club" type characters that Burstein is obviously looking for-after all, she even models the poster after it, and it works perfectly.

Another thing I had a problem with is the rather condescending tone that is going on during the whole thing. There were segments where the audience was laughing, but the material was shifted in a way where it seemed like it was set up for the audience to laugh AT the subjects and their lives and not WITH them. For example, when it is revealed that Colin's day is an Elvis impersonator it seemed like the audience and Burstein was not taking that seriously, instead making a joke of their lifestyle. Another was in Megan's house. This is a family that is somewhat better off than others-they have some money and she seems set when it comes to another related to that. Her staircase is filled with pictures of her young sisters and brothers, all who have some kind of portrait, which got a laugh. Burstein also does not exactly allow us to care for many of the characters, mostly Megan. One scene we can see her being a rude and horrible person, and than the next they try to tug at our hearts to try and get some sympathy. The tone really is all over the place, and I never get the feeling that Burstein actually cares for her subjects.

That all being said, some of the material is really really good, but in the hands of someone a little more competent of putting a documentary together it could have been used to its full potential. There is an interesting study here of growing up and changing and coming to terms with adulthood that just is lost in Nanette Burstein's muddled agenda. She seems to want to drift away from the cliche moments of high school that we have seen again and again, and yet she chose subjects that would lead us down those paths. Her choices are wrong from the first minute, where you can easily see where all of this is going to go. There is no reason to blame the subjects, all of whom live and act exactly how one would expect. It is the fault of the creator, who sadly took something potentially memorable and made it something forgettable, disposable, and ironically enough (a word I hate to use, but it does apply here for irony) cliche.

"American Teen" is opening July 25th by Paramount Vantage.

** of ****

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