Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening night premiere of American Teen (in theaters July 25) as part of the third annual Sundance Institute at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music). The Sundance fav launched an eleven-day festival of sorts, showcasing the best of the best from this year's Sundance Film Festival; 22 features and 36 shorts in total, plus filmmaker Q&As, parties, art installations and tons of Brooklyn hipster-watching.

The screening itself was completely sold out and held inside the gorgeous BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, where, conveniently, free popcorn and bottles of water were handed out at the door. And as my wife pointed out after we sat down: "They're smart -- free things always put a person in a good mood before a film." Indeed! Before the curtain rose on American Teen, a number of folks approached the mic for some words, while the crowd cheered every time 'Brooklyn' was used in a sentence. The speakers included BAM President Karen Hopkins, Sundance executive director Ken Brecher, Brooklyn Borough President (and an awesome guy) Marty Markowitz, Katherine Oliver, Commissioner of the NYC Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting, BAM Cinema Club Chairs Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, and, finally, American Teen director Nanette Burstein (sporting a very pregnant belly) and one of the film's teenage stars, Hannah Bailey (pictured above).

Check out a gallery from the premiere, the film and the prom-themed after party below -- then head after the jump for my thoughts on American Teen. (All pictures courtesy of the fine folks at the Sundance Institute and Paramount Vantage.)

%Gallery-24054% I didn't exactly know what to think of American Teen heading in. I knew it was this break-out hit at Sundance, that people -- serious critics -- really enjoyed what, on paper, seemed like an extended episode of The Hills Gone Rural. What was Burstein giving us that hadn't already been provided in shows like MTV's True Life: I Go To High School and You Should Care ... Why, Exactly?

But it was one of the more buzzed-about docs of the year, and so I traveled with my wife from Queens to Brooklyn (which, in NYC, is the equivalent of traveling across continents) to not only support the Sundance Institute and this marvelous program they host every May, but also to see why American Teen was causing such a stir. Ten minutes in, I realized this would be a different kind of film -- one that, at times, was reminiscent of shows like The Hills, sure, but also delivers a powerful combination of humor, heart, passion, drama and sadness. Fact is, if American Teen doesn't at least get nominated for Best Documentary come Oscar time, then folks at the Academy should seriously re-think what, exactly, makes a film one of the best of the year.

In following the five high school seniors from rural Warsaw, Indiana, Burstein takes the "Breakfast Club" approach: We have a geek, a jock, a princess, a rebel and a heartthrob -- all of whom speak fairly candidly about their lives, their fears, their hopes and their dreams. We learn who they're friends with, who they're not friends with, what they want to be in life, where they want to go to college; these are your average kids living average lives, but what separates American Teen from the rest of the real-life dreck in movies and on TV is that Burstein digs deeper beneath the surface and, in doing so, captures some amazing life-altering moments. (One scene, in particular, captures Hannah, the rebel, explaining to her parents on a picnic bench how she doesn't want to be like them when she grows up. And though she makes it look easy, one can tell that behind those stubborn eyes is a girl who just had the most difficult conversation of her life.)

Whether we realize it or not, some of the most important decisions in our lives are made when we're 18 and graduating high school. Not only does American Teen capture this crucial time in the lives of five American teenagers, but it does so with accuracy, real heart and no hand-holding. You'll laugh with them, you'll cry with them, and when it's all said and done, you'll leave the theater feeling as if you've just gained five new best friends.

American Teen arrives in theaters on July 25 (see trailer below).

For tickets and more information on this year's Sundance Institute at BAM, check out their official website.