There are times when I regret starting college two years early as, much like Woody Allen’s autobiographical character from Annie Hall who confuses reality with fantasy, most of my vivid high school memories come straight from the John Hughes oeuvre. Thus I switched to college at sixteen, I become questionably nostalgic about missed proms, the nervousness of walking to the podium to accept a diploma, and the way that some of my friends seem to recall their teenage years with a mischievous glimmer of longing in their eye.
Yet, aside from Matthew Broderick's Ferris Bueller, who seemed like the king of his school (when he was there, that is), the misfits played by Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, and Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles never really painted an inviting portrait of high school life. Instead, through the eyes of the likable outsiders to whom as a brainy film nerd I instantly related, we witnessed the depiction of high school as a modern day American caste system filled with abused serfs and lowly peasants wherein Queen Bees and jocks ruled the terrain in a seemingly endless parade of perfect hair, skin, family, wealth, romantic luck, and connections. However, when you combine these iconic 1980s John Hughes images with the new incredible documentary American Teen crafted by Sundance Film Festival award-winning director Nanette Burstein, I realize that I’m incredibly grateful that I skipped junior and senior year.
The film begins with a Breakfast Club-inspired structure in presenting us with five teenagers who upon first glance seem to epitomize Hughes’s labels from the jock to the princess. Predictably by using a documentary approach, the personalities depicted all transcend the labels to become fully realized human beings in the eyes of the viewer. And in the end, we’re surprised to discover that in the world of high school, not too much has changed in twenty years. In fact, it seems as though Club’s theme song “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” was passed down like a torch from Generation X to Y, since we haven’t forgotten the hateful caste system.
Furthermore, contrary to the popular media assumption that partying, sex, and violence is always the chef’s special in the menu of teenage behavior, the five Midwestern high school seniors chronicled by Burstein find themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure not only from one another but parents, coaches, and teachers as they all near the finishing line of their obligatory education. However the quest to “fit in” still reigns supreme and in the technological era of text messaging, digital cameras, reality television, and instant Internet gratification ranging from e-mail, blogging, websites, and YouTube, it’s “amped up the cruelty and the regret-ability factor,” as Burstein noted in the Filmmaker Magazine interview “Personality Crisis” by Jason Guerrasio (Summer 2008; pg. 41-42).