July 31, 2008

Documentary ‘American Teen’ Looks at Year in Small-Town Students’ Lives

By Chris Vognar, The Dallas Morning News

Jul. 31--Nanette Burstein has seen The Hills, the popular MTV "reality" show about pretty kids living a contrived existence in Southern California. She's taken in her share of fluffy Hollywood product designed for optimum fantasy.

So when it came time for her to make American Teen, a documentary about five high school seniors in the small town of Warsaw, Ind., she knew exactly what she didn't want to do.

"Most fiction films about teenagers tend to be like fairy tales, because the studios are making them and marketing them for 13-year-olds," she says during a recent stop in Dallas. "And a lot of the reality shows tend to be trashy. They don't have a lot of substance or honest moments. They're also like fantasy -- Southern California, everyone is rich and beautiful. So I felt like there was this opening to do something honest and interesting that could affect people."

Not that American Teen is dry and analytical. It has characters and story arcs, crises and resolutions. It is edited for dramatic effect. Like On the Ropes and The Kid Stays in the Picture, the two documentaries Ms. Burstein made with her former producing partner Brett Morgen, American Teen is entertaining.

It's just not cheap or glossy. It's what reality TV might be in a better world.

"I was looking for stories that could play out as a strong narrative," Ms. Burstein says. "You have people that need to achieve something throughout the course of a year. You don't know all the details it would take to get there, but you know there is this dramatic structure built in."

The five characters are Hannah Bailey, a free spirit whose horizons stretch far beyond Warsaw; Colin Clemens, a basketball star under the gun to get a scholarship or else join the army; Megan Krizmanich, a popular drama queen dealing with a family tragedy; Jake Tusing, a loner with a wicked sense of humor but no clique; and Mitch Reinholt, a jock who doesn't quite fit the mold.

Ms. Burstein began by visiting 10 Midwestern high schools and interviewing all of the incoming seniors who expressed interest in the project. She wanted a small town so she could emphasize the social pressures of a city with only one high school. (She also wanted a little economic and racial diversity, which she couldn't find in combination with her other desired variables.)

She then focused on Warsaw, which offered the five most compelling characters she could find. And she followed them for an entire school year, camera crew in tow.

The constant camera presence wasn't always easy for the teens, who already had things like college applications and breakups to deal with.

"There were about three phases we went through with the cameras," says Ms. Bailey, now a 20-year-old studying film at the State University of New York-Purchase. "The first six weeks it was awkward, especially when you're walking down the hall at school. After the first couple of weeks it was fun. It was a novelty. Then the last couple of months we were really annoyed with it. I was trying to get out of Warsaw and deciding where I wanted to go. They would call and say, 'Can we film?' and I'd say, 'No, today's not good.' It was pretty hostile at some points. But it got better."

Indeed it did. Ms. Bailey and her four fellow subjects are spending the summer in Los Angeles to promote the film.

"They get to go get paid to live in LA for the summer and go to rock concerts," Ms. Burstein says with a laugh. "It's awesome for them, and it's rewarding for me to see them get something out of this."

It's not the luxury of The Hills. But it will do.

Coming Friday

Read a review of American Teen in GuideLive: Movies.


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