If shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills are what make us hate today's teenagers, then American Teen is the antidote that reminds us that we used to be teenagers too and while we may be worthy of some gentle mockery, there's no need for outright scorn, especially when focused through the lives of this documentary's stars.
Playing off the archetypes of John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, we're introduced to five high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana: Hannah (a rebel), Colin (a jock), Jake (a geek), Megan (a princess), and Mitch (a heartthrob; yeah, I know, it doesn't line up perfectly). A fictionalized tale involving these five kinds of characters would be a waste of time, but through the unpredictability allowed by a documentary, we're allowed to see each of these leads as fully realized people. You'll see shades of yourself and of your friends in them but the film attempts to be as objective as possible. In so doing, some of the students grow as people over the year and others don't learn anything. There are moments where director Nanette Burnstein attempts to choreograph scenes a little too tightly, like when there's a big important game and talent scouts will be there but Colin is being too much of a ball-hog. Thankfully, stumbles like these are few and for the most part, we get to see this youth culture honestly, with a wonderful eye not only towards personality, but towards setting.
The film is temporal in showing how these kids are so adept at using technology to social ends (one girl is brutally humiliated when a topless photo finds its way throughout the entire school) but it has many universal qualities like parents hopes and fears for their children, the need to establish independence, and that young love may be fleeting but that doesn't make it frivolous. And through all of it, there's a great sense of humor that runs throughout the film and it's to Burnsteinís credit that the laughs are always supportive and never derisive.
We're constantly reminded that the children are our future. American Teen makes that notion somewhat less horrifying.