Kids these days ... 

American Teen

Its coming to a theater near you: your senior year.
  • Its coming to a theater near you: your senior year.

*American Teen (PG-13)
Kimball's Twin Peak

Does life change after high school, or is it just more of the same? Seems to me it must be a little bit of both, because as I sat in the dark watching American Teen, the intimate and incisive new documentary about five high school seniors, I simultaneously thought, "Thank God I'm not a teenager anymore," and "Wow, we never really grow up."

Documentarian Nanette Burstein spent an entire school year at the only high school in tiny Warsaw, Ind., where there is no escape from the pressure cooker of adolescence or from conservative small-town conformity.

Using minimal crews with minimal equipment often just herself and a camera Burstein followed five teens from across the spectrum of American youth: the all-star jock, the band geek, the arty rebel, the prom queen and the heartthrob. She claims to have become their friend, never an authority figure in their lives, and that must be true, because some of the things the kids do on camera are the kinds of things they'd never, ever do if they thought their parents were watching. And, some of the things they say on camera are the kinds of things they'd never, ever say to a parent's face.

That's why adults, and particularly parents, I suspect, will get more out of American Teen presented in Colorado Springs by the Windrider Film Forum (wind ridercolorado.com) than kids themselves will. It's a peek into the horrors of adolescence that most of us have tried to forget. Some parts of the nonsense the "caste system" of school, the mean-spiritedness of some people and the peer pressure never totally go away, and those aspects of high school life will have many adults groaning in recognition.

It's the emotionalism, I think, that many adults will have forgotten the raging hormones that blow up absolutely every event into a tragedy or triumph of epic proportions. The wild ups and downs of adolescence really are wilder than grown-ups remember, and Burstein captures them with such desperate honesty that it's hard to watch at moments. Every romantic breakup is a disaster, and entire futures appear to weigh on whether that college acceptance comes through or that scholarship is offered.

"My life sucks right now," one of the kids laments, trying to explain how deeply in pain he is all the time, "but what if it's even worse after high school?" Reminding adults that many of us once had the same thoughts and hearing them again, in the kind of language we ourselves probably withheld from adults to keep us from feeling too raw and exposed is a good thing.

Raw and exposed: That's American Teen as a package, and it comes at you in more ways than you'd expect. Burstein uses clever and stylized animation sequences to illustrate hopes and fears of her subjects breathtaking dreamscapes that capture the kids' souls that slam us adults back into adolescence faster than any other facet of the film.

All I know is this: Whenever I was tempted to scoff, from my 20-years-past-high-school perspective, at some of these kids as spoiled brats or clueless children, I couldn't quite bring myself to do it.


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