With the recent influx of teen drama and comedies and the success of Juno, it was only a matter of time before things were taken a step further and a documentary was made profiling actual teenagers. Enter Paramount Vantage, who brought together a film that profiled the life of five Indiana teenagers as they made their way through their senior year. With a fair critical reception (currently holding steady at 71% on RT) and limited box office release (released in a little over 100 theaters), this documentary is now seeing an even more limited home video release, with only Target stores carrying it.
Popularity is everything; breakups and missed jump-shorts are the end of the world; a college acceptance is a dream come true; and an email forwarded to the wrong person is your worst nightmare. Now experience senior year of high school through the eyes of five real-life Indiana teenagers: the Prom Queen, the Heartthrob, the Jock, the Rebel and the Geek. This revealing year-in-the-life feature delivers the real heartbreak, hilarity and – OMG – drama of senior year first-hand from five very different viewpoints. And no matter who you identify with, everyone will relate to American Teen.
You can, of course, understand my trepidation coming into this film, based on that description alone. “OMG”? I’ve become so accustomed to immediately hating anything that actually uses that phrase in a serious tone that I want to immediately ignore or destroy whatever uttered it. Of course that’s just being close minded, so I should open my viewpoint and instead focus on things that are positive about this film, of which there admittedly a few things to find appealing about it, although you’re going to have to be in a certain age group to fully take all of this in.
I am not in that age group. I’ve no desire to watch five teenagers act…like, well, teenagers and I had a hard time really caring about any of what was going on in this film. To top it off the front of the box was smattered with a quote that said it was “as funny” as Napoleon Dynamite, as “touching” as Juno and “may even be better than” The Breakfast Club. Yes…that’s great, except all three of those films were based on fictional characters and this documentary is…well, a freakin’ documentary. How do you compare the two different mediums? That’s like saying you liked a fictional crime novel more than the non-fiction one; similar storylines, sure, but the emotions you feel and connect with are on a whole different level if you know what you’re seeing is genuinely real. Not to mention that, while I may not have been the biggest fan of The Breakfast Club, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend that film over this one. But that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, I don’t think.
The only reason I can think such a quote as the one on the box would exist would be due to the fact that the film does have elements from those films to be sure, but no doubt because it’d be kind of hard not to, since they were based on some real experience in some way or another. Still, I hesitate to relate this film to anything that came before it, simply because it’s really not like anything that has. It’s the first documentary I know of that actually followed teens through their senior year and filmed it, so that alone is unique to this film.
But enough babbling about the components of the film, how does the actual film fare? I was surprised by how moving it was at times, but honestly I didn’t feel all that emotionally attached to it. I wondered if I was and the general critical reaction is gushing about how deeply moving the entire documentary is, but I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of it was…well, fake. Obviously some moments are staged, there’s simply no way everything would have happened in this film without a little prodding from someone in one direction or another. I’m not doubting the entire set up of the film, but when it comes to story bits like that of Hannah, I find it hard to believe everything in this film is 100% truthful.
And it was that nagging thought that destroyed the movie for me. If it had been created as a faux documentary where we knew not everything was real, then I’d be more willing to accept it, but I can’t help but feel that if I fully buy into it I’ll be cheated in the end and find out that it’s all bull. I like my non-fiction to be purely fact based and not a mixture of non-fiction and fiction, so as it stands this was an interesting character study, but honestly you’ll find a more appealing portrayal of America’s youth from a film like The Breakfast Club.
I’m sure there are two groups of movie goers who may see this film that will buy into this: those still in high school and those who have long since left their high school years behind. If you’re in my age range (early 20’s) and know individuals who are just leaving high school themselves, then you’ll be a little more hard pressed to swallow everything this film gives you. Perhaps I’m just a tad bit cynical, but between the obviously staged shots, camera dolly’s and overuse of visually stimulating montages, the film honestly and truly felt like it was conceived to do nothing but make you weep or become emotionally attached to the individuals presented here.
If you’re remotely able to detect what is a fake documentary and what isn’t, then I’d just avoid this film. You’ll be so caught up with trying to figure out what audio was dubbed over and what in the film is genuine that you’ll completely bypass watching the film. I suppose it’s a slightly more truthful version of The Hills, but that’s not really saying all that much, is it? Rent It if you must.
As previously stated this film isn’t available in mass release and will only see release at Target stores (for now). Paramount seems to be doing this exclusive movie release thing a lot lately, what with Foot Fist Way and Son of Rambow creeping up in Best Buy exclusively. Still, you aren’t missing much from this film if you don’t see it, so I wouldn’t be too concerned if you can’t find a copy somewhere. The film itself comes in a standard DVD case without any inserts and plain grey wash disc art. Menu’s are simple and easy to navigate and the video quality is respectable, although due to the documentary nature of it isn’t the best due to the non-controlled (at times) environment. Still it’s good enough for a documentary film and the DD5.1 track is predominantly front-channel focused. Also included are Spanish DD5.1 audio, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Extras include a series of Cast Interviews, as well as a collection of Deleted Scenes. There’s also a few Character Trailers and a selection of Hannah Blogs, in case you’re curious to hear more from her (I’m not).
In the end unless you’re a modern teen who can’t get into the 80s visuals of The Breakfast Club and want something that feels like an MTV production, complete with the fakery, then by all means, watch American Teen. Anyone who likes to not waste their money, however, can safely Skip It.
American Teen arrives on DVD on December 21st, exclusively at Target stores