The title of Nanette Burstein's documentary American Teen sounds like an absurd generalization, more so when the movie itself turns out to be about high-school students in small-town Indiana, which could never be called a diverse cross-section of the country's youth. Things get even broader when Burstein introduces her four main subjects, who are instantly broken down into Breakfast Club types: The Popular Girl, The Jock, The Nerd, The Rebel. As such, the film will inevitably be misunderstood as a sweeping statement on teenage life, when Burstein really means to explore the relationship between these labels and the complicated individuals who fall under them. Though it's compelling enough as soap opera, American Teen digs deeply into why kids grudgingly accept the roles they've been given and the brutal consequences that come with straying outside the lines.
Though a few supporting players slip in and out of the storylines, Burstein primarily follows four seniors at various spots in the caste system. The piranha at the top of the food chain is Megan, a popular girl who relishes her queen-bee cruelty at times, but is haunted at others over college pressure and a family tragedy. Basketball star Colin deals with the heavy expectations of leading the team and standing out to recruiters, two goals that put him at cross-purposes. Socially awkward band geek Jake gets the brush-off from most of his classmates, but that doesn't stop the intrepid romantic from pursuing girls. Then there's the loveable, free-spirited Hannah, who longs to live in San Francisco and go to film school, but is meanwhile stuck in a conservative place where she doesn't fit in.
Time and again throughout American Teen, the subjects try to take chances and explore the world outside their assigned stations, only to be knocked back for it. When a popular guy named Mitch takes a liking to Hannah, he gets nudged and teased for it, and winds up retreating cravenly to his clique in spite of the evident pleasure he takes in her company. As American Teen plumbs further into these kids' lives, it serves as a bracing reminder of how hard those years can be, and how intensely 17-year-olds can succumb to love and rejection. In form, it's admittedly slick and packaged, with a commercial feel that owes as much to reality television as it does to Frederick Wiseman. But in content, it's easy for anyone who survived (or is surviving) high school to feel twinges of identification.