YO--THIS POST IS RIFE WITH AMERICAN TEEN SPOILERS
TEXT MESSAGE: I don't think we should see each other anymore. I still want to be friends.
American Teen: I kind of hated every one of these kids. It purports to be this look into senior year for real students, but is quite obviously staged with some pretty glaring continuity errors, and, it's just rather artlessly made. There are parts where the kids are talking about very real emotions, and, instead of keeping the camera on their faces, so we can see them as they vent, the camera cuts away to these terrible animations that add nothing to the story. As a look at the American teenager, it also really fails because it's obvious certain kids are lying through their teeth for the camera, and offers no real insights one couldn't get from sitting at a food court for an afternoon. Also, I hate to be that guy but it seems really short-sighted to have a movie like this and not have one kids be a minority of some sort. Screw Ben Lyons, take a pass on this.
Re-reading Caley's American Teen post, I realize that I was left with a very similar end take--that this is a fundamentally flawed and slight movie--but for markedly different reasons.
For instance, I didn't hate "every one of these kids." I only hated one of them, and then pretty much every adult in the movie--especially the director. Most of that can be covered by considering each of the kids in turn:
The kids: Every one of these kids seemed singled out for their adherence to some prescribed cliche of a role in school/life, a la The Breakfast Club
--the insidious trailer (http://www.youtube.c...h?v=ZqDG4UDeFoQ
) slots them into BC roles: THE JOCK/THE GEEK/THE REBEL/THE PRINCESS/THE HEARTTHROB:WHO WERE YOU?--and they each get a surface-skimming edit that makes sure they fall into their Playdoh Fun-Factory assigned shapes. I can't complain that the filmmakers didn't do the Obligatory PC Diversity Dance in semi-rural Indiana, but their choices have each been edited down to their least interesting portraits.
This poor bastard suffers from not only the longest chin i've ever seen, but having to appear in a half-assed high school basketball player segment in the wake of Hoop Dreams. What the movie told us:
generic will he/won't he scholarship story from every teen sports drama ever. What I wanted to know but never found out:
Were his grades all legitimate? What was his relationship like with his coach, and why wasn't his coach helping to solicit/field scholarship offers? Why did he have a hard time with girls if he was so popular? And, if nothing else, how the fuck did an 8-11 team wind up in anything that could be loosely referred to as a "sectional championship?" Were there just two teams in the section?
THE GEEK: What the movie told us:
He's in the marching band. He has acne. He wants a girlfriend. He plays video games. Thank god we eventually got to his brother, who shows him a good time and reminds him of the one girl in the continental US who might go to prom with him. I mean, fucking A people, this is hardly an in-depth look at a troubled kid. What I wanted to know but never found out:
Who was this kid? Was he a decent student? (That's really more a criticism of the entire film, which glazes over the academic part of the high school experience for all these kids--even a glimmer of which might have told us more in short strokes about what they're going through than the skim-fest ever could.) Mostly, how the hell did he convince a girl to come halfway across the country to go to prom with him? That would've been fascinating.
Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure the answer to that question probably involves some variation of the elephant in the room: because she wanted to be in the movie. Not once during the entirety of the movie do any of these kids get to address the impact being filmed for a documentary has had on their lives, especially in the way their friends and family treat them differently, or how they relate to one another. I mean, how could the main four not have bonded even a little over their shared quasi-celebrity?
I think this kid got lumped in the five about halfway through the school year, when he dabbled with getting more screen time by toying with the troubled girl's heart. So I was wrong, I hated two of these kids. What the movie told us: He might be sensitive. He might be a callous dick. We'll never know. What I wanted to know but never found out:
Did he deliberately worm his way into the movie? Did he and THE REBEL ever even kiss? They yada-yada'ed pretty much that entire relationship.
This girl was kind of sweet, but I felt like the school, the filmmakers and her parental figures really threw her to the dogs. I mean, they edited her down to every gotta-get-out-of-this-small-town platitude, and she seemed bright enough that i'm sure she had more to say. Then the breakup happens, and everyone around lets her stay at home moping for fourteen days over it. WTF? It was surreal to get the impression that no one was looking out for her. What the film told us: One boy broke her heart, another boy broke her heart, she got out of dodge. What I wanted to know but never found out:
What relationship (if any) did she have with her teachers, especially in the arts? Why didn't any of them come to see why she'd been absent for so long? And holy hell, the question of the movie: what was up with her pal in the picture above? Was he in love with her? Was he gay? He had potentially the most interesting story line in the movie, and he was used as a prop.
THE PRINCESS: Here's the reason that they eschewed "the criminal" from the Breakfast Club parallel: because this little twerp was evidently all five of the characters. What the film told us:
She wanted to get into Notre Dame, for no other reason that her brothers and sisters did. She's casually cruel. She's a lousy friend. She petty and mean and was only too happy to tag some kid's house with a penis drawing and the word "FAG" because she didn't like his choice of prom theme
. Her older sister didn't get into Notre Dame and committed suicide a couple years earlier. She eventually got into Notre Dame and drove herself off to school in a Mercedes Benz SUV. What I wanted to know but never found out:
Why the fuck was this girl popular? Was she the valedictorian? Holy hell, that would've made the Notre Dame speculation a lot less dramatic if we had known what kind of student she was. How the hell did she not get suspended for the vandalism? Was it because of the movie? Or her family's influence in the community? How did Notre Dame keep her on after seeing what she did? When her best friends hook up and she freaks out: Why? Jealousy? Of which person? Was she a closeted lesbian? (It's a reach, but she's never seen with an overt beau.) Was she too busy studying to have a boyfriend? Did her stoic father prohibit it? Is that why she was so mean to everyone? I hated this girl beyond measure, though I'll allow the film didn't get after one iota (okay, two iotas, the sister's suicide must've impacted her somehow) of what made her tick. Wasn't that supposed to be the point of the whole thankless exercise?
My usual litmus test for a documentary is this: would a 12-minute feature on 60 Minutes have been just as effective? For American Teen, we'll at least put this in the right context: would each of these kids' stories been more compelling as a half-hour episode of Made? And I believe the answer is yes, freaking MTV would've given us more context and pathos for each kid's individual story, and not just reduced them to their lowest common denominators.
Things I liked about American Teen:
The music. Glad to see Michael Penn working.
The opening title animation:
The dream sequences, painful though they were, showed a certain spark of imagination. Maybe the only spark in the whole movie.
Those kids deserved better. We deserve better. The teens of America deserved much, much better.