Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen opens not far from John Hughes country, both geographically and artistically: we're introduced, in quick order, to four students at the high school in Warsaw, Indiana, on the first day of class. But while the camera work and voice-over has the glossy fizz of fiction, it's nonetheless a real school, and while the kids we meet all correlate roughly to the archetypal teens of fiction, they're real too. We meet Hannah, the plucky, artsy outsider; Colin, the star athlete with a heart of gold; Megan, the prom queen whose school-spirit high-fives hide an iron fist; and smart, insecure, dorky Jake, all in quick succession. And while part of your mind reels at the clichés -- we're just one Judd Nelson-type away from a straight flush, for heaven's sake -- as Burstein's film unfolds, we realize that if there ever was a place cliché's were true, it's high school.
And even then there are curve balls, large and small, thrown our way. For example, the montage of Megan's cluttered calendar of extracurricular activities gives way to scenes of her firing off a nine-millimeter pistol at a firing range; I don't recall Molly Ringwald busting caps. Colin turns out to be a surprisingly funny kid, just like his dad, but there's tension under the laughter. Hannah lives with her grandmother, as her depressive mom can't seem to cope and her dad had to move to Ohio for work. And Jake's self-confessed nerdiness is actually just camouflage over a slightly wounded soul; he's self-aware in a way that makes his life tougher, not easier. And as the kids talk about their lives, days become weeks become months, and the immensity of Burstein's achievement comes into focus; Warsaw Community High School may not be the place to find a perfect statistically average high school that represents America (as if any such school really exists) -- it's mostly White, impressively well-appointed, and looks fairly new -- but it's where Burstein shot, every day, for 10 months. And you get drawn into these kid's lives -- their struggles, their challenges, their triumphs -- so fiercely that you cannot help but be enthralled.