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Documentary 'American Teen' delves deep to show five high-schoolers and their families in a realistic way

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August 08, 2008|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun movie critic

The documentary American Teen is the most realistic movie you will see all summer. Nonetheless, I'm convinced it was made by a sci-fi character. To go so deeply under the skin of a handful of high-schoolers in Warsaw, Ind., and to chronicle their lives so fully, Nanette Burstein must be an "empath" from Minority Report, able to sense other people's most surprising moves.

Burstein followed five main characters through their senior year in 2006. Colin Clemens, a hoops star, is desperate to win a college basketball scholarship - his father tells him the Army is his only alternative. Megan Krizmanich, a big girl on campus, has pinned the rest of her life on gaining admission to her family's school of choice, Notre Dame. Jake Tusing, a self-described band geek, yearns to find girls who don't look down on him or straight through him. Hannah Bailey, a bright, artistic gal, wants to get out of Warsaw and become a filmmaker. And Mitch Reinholt, one of Colin's teammates, sees Hannah perform at a school talent show and dares to date outside the in crowd.

You don't respond to American Teen as if it were a conventional documentary; even more remarkably, you don't respond to it as if it were a sensitive teen comedy-drama. The movie has the sureness and nuance of a tiptop novel. Who could predict that Colin's father, who was also a high school basketball star, would be a professional Elvis Presley impersonator? Who would guess that party-girl Megan's cruelty to others and demand for the spotlight might spring from a family tragedy?

American Teen summons comparisons to films that have become classics for their spirit and insight, such as the Indiana-set Breaking Away (1979). It's just as keen as Breaking Away at making socioeconomic distinctions, and its best characters are equally defiant at resisting attempts to nail them down or put them in their place.

Hannah may succumb to depression - but she won't let anyone, even her mom, tell her that she's nothing "special." Jake appears to be turning self-loathing into a comedy style; he rubs his acne-laden forehead across a table and then complains about the grease. He is also relentless in his pursuit of girls.

When Jake wonders whether he'll get a clean slate and a new identity in college, whether that of a muscle man or a wild man, he articulates the theme for the whole movie. American Teen is about the creation of individual identities amid parental and peer pressure and the surging emotions of growing up.

The movie is fascinating partly for what doesn't obsess the kids - religion, politics or studying - and partly for what does: love and friendship and inchoate yearnings for a better future. They need to see themselves not as others see them, but as they could be at their best.

For all the frenzied activity, what is most important to each of them is inner life. Burstein comes up with the brilliant device of using animated interludes to express their private longings.

The animators render each mini-cartoon in a different style, and each does justice to the character, whether full of turmoil and poetry like Hannah or sweeping, comic-book wish fulfillment like Jake.

What's astonishing about the movie is that when you see breakups between friends and couples or mini-scandals such as a topless shot ratchet through the high-school community, they don't occur in a bubble. Burstein's intimacy with her subjects is so complete that you experience them as shared events sweeping through an electric atmosphere.

One of the movie's themes is the pressure that new technology puts on teens, even when they impulsively or thoughtlessly exploit it. Giddy horseplay gives way to cyber-bullying, or a nice guy who's afraid of confrontation can take the cruelest way out and break up with a girl via text-message.

The parents don't take up a huge amount of screen time, yet you feel their pressure constantly. They're setting the parameters for their kids, and at times, the burden is crushing. The miracle of American Teen is how well the kids push back.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

See a preview and more photos of American Teen at baltimoresun.com/americanteen

American Teen

(Paramount Vantage) A documentary by Nanette Burstein. Rated PG-13 for strong language and sexual material. Time 95 minutes.

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