You generally don't want to judge a film by its advertising campaign, as the creation of the film and the marketing of it are generally two separate entities. But in the case of the documentary American Teen, new to DVD as of December 23, you can't help but feel that how director Nanette Burstein put the film together was influenced by how it was to be marketed, to the detriment of the film. It's not that I dislike the advertising; I enjoyed the trailer when I first saw it, and the whole Breakfast Club motif is one of the reasons why this movie caught my eye.
The problem is that too much of the film feels shoehorned to fit the marketing plan rather than to properly service the footage and stories that have been captured. The film is clearly trying to position itself to get a portion of the Juno or Napoleon Dynamite audiences (a review quote comparing it to both of those films appears on the DVD cover), while borrowing The Breakfast Club's conceit of representing all of teendom through five archetypes: the rebel (Hannah Bailey), the jock (Colin Clemens), the prom queen (Megan Krizmanich), the heartthrob (Mitch Reinholt), and the geek (Jake Tusing), five high school students attending Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana.
The attempt to shoehorn these kids into their Breakfast Club counterparts is problematic. (Judd Nelson wasn't a heartthrob… he was a criminal! Ally Sheedy was a basket case, not a rebel! C'mon!) Sure, the kids fit into different stereotypes and cliques that make up our memories of the high school experience, but by trying to mirror John Hughes' characters, the movie doesn't always follow the most interesting stories. Plus, because this is non-fiction, we often don't get satisfactory conclusions to the arcs they've chosen to highlight. You can feel the marketing pull in the case of Mitch in particular, who is presented as one of the five featured teens, but in reality was a supporting character introduced as part of Hannah's story, then pushed to the forefront when Burstein and/or the producers realized they needed a Judd Nelson (even though, as I just mentioned, he doesn't fit the Judd Nelson archetype at all).
The documentary feels like a slightly classier version of reality TV, following teens throughout their senior year, inter-spliced with confessional footage that lets us know what's on their minds. Some have criticized the film for feeling manufactured, but Burstein and the teens featured have all sworn to its authenticity. I'm willing to believe that none of the moments of the film were set up or scripted, but the presentation feels so familiar that I understand why some believe it to be. Part of this is simply the result of the Observer Effect, in that the teens say and do things they may have not done were they not being filmed, and part of it is that these teens have grown up in the era of reality TV, and thus have changed their actions accordingly. In particular, queen bee Megan seems to be auditioning for The Hills at times, while at other times you have to wonder if different supporting players didn't attach themselves to feature characters like Hannah and Jake for a shot to be on camera.
With all that said, the film still succeeds more than it fails. The candid glimpses it gives into the lives of teens can be very affecting, offering a glimpse into the pressures facing teens these days without the alarmist spin Hollywood usually puts on these things. A group of five Caucasian teens from Indiana might not be an ideal cross-section of America that could represent all of the problems facing high schoolers these days (the kids all seem to be at least middle class economically, with some being upper-middle), but their lives do have their own struggles to overcome. It's senior year for these kids, so the pressure of the next phase of their lives is at the forefront of their lives. But more than that, the film shows how entrenched the cliques and roles of high school can become, a reality I found myself relating to even though I'm a dozen years removed from their experience, and I imagine all viewers can no matter how long it has been since they roamed the halls of high school. Even if it might alarm you how much easier and instant it is to destroy a kid's place in the social hierarchy in the age of texting, email, and social networking, the basics behind it have been a part of teenage life for generations.
Part of the conceit of the film is that everyone can relate to one of the five characters. Personally, I didn't fit into any of these five archetypes in high school (and instead fit into the more common, but rarely talked about, anonymous archetype: the kids who aren't popular or geeks, but rather fit in the middle mostly unnoticed), but I found Hannah to be the most interesting character. As an artsy type who wants to move to San Francisco to become a director, I don't think it's a stretch to say that Hannah is the character Nanette Burstein most identified with, which could explain why she got the most favourable edit. However, Burstein does make a solid attempt to present her main characters in a rounded fashion (well, four of the five anyway, as Mitch isn't actually a featured character), making sure to show the quieter side of princess Megan, who opens up about a family tragedy when not actively trying to destroy former friends seemingly for no other reason than to assert her dominance.
The quieter character moments when the kids seem less like they're playing for the cameras and more like they're being themselves are when the movie excels. There are also some interesting developments that push the story into interesting places. But overall, the film's need to go in a more marketable direction works to its detriment. Instead of following the more interesting characters or moments in greater depth, it's forced to keep trying to establish its main characters, even when they're not offering enough to justify their position. The film feels like an upgrade from MTV reality shows, so if you enjoy those but feel guilty for doing so, definitely give American Teen a shot. It's just too bad that the footage may have been better served if it HAD been a reality TV show instead of a feature film documentary.
DVD Review: The DVD is presented in widescreen with a 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track, but as a lower budget documentary, you're not watching it for its visual or audio presentation, and as such, I don't really have anything to say about either. It neither looked or sounded good or bad enough to notice.
As for special features, they're pretty standard. There are post-screening interviews with the now college-aged cast titled "Pop Quiz" (either post festival screenings or the theatrical release), where they quickly update us on what life is like now that they've been in a movie. There's a section of short interview scenes that didn't make the final cut featuring Hannah titled "Hannah Blogs" that aren't actually blogs (or vlogs) but were probably posted as such in the films viral campaign. None are particularly interesting, but do provide more thoughts from the film's most articulate cast member (and further the notion that Hannah was Burstein's favourite). Then there's the deleted scenes (or MORE deleted scenes when you consider that the "Hannah Blogs" feature are also deleted scenes), which, like most deleted scenes featured on DVDs merely show that they deserve to be deleted scenes (especially in the case of one that features Jake at the end of a date, which goes on forever and illustrates why many of life's moments aren't compelling enough to be shown in movies). Finally, the DVD has five character-specific trailers which basically just cuts up the main trailer by character.
None of these special features are particularly special, so one's decision about whether or not to acquire the DVD should solely be based on one's opinion of the film itself; and given my above rating, the best I can recommend is to check this out as a rental.