American Teen

3 Stars - Thought-Provoking

Most of us realize, as we look back on our teen years, that to even survive high school is a major achievement in life. Thrown together during the transition years when everyone's developing minds are attempting to catch up with developed bodies, the American high school experience is excruciating for many. From cliques to proms, from acne to locker rooms, from tests to play-off games to college admissions letters, embarrassment and pressure is around virtually every corner. That this is still the reality for teenagers in our nation is revealed in this fascinating documentary by Nanette Burstein simply titled "American Teen."

Filmed in the small Midwestern town of Warsaw, Indiana, we voyeuristically follow five seniors in their final year at Warsaw Community High School. Shooting over 1,000 hours of film, the ninety-five minutes Burstein presents is a compelling story of their final year in this crucible. Though each person fills a different place within the school's social caste system, their experiences reveal that they share far more in common than their differences might imply. Each is attempting to find themselves and their way in uncharted waters.

The "popular girl" is Megan Krizmanich. Driven by expectations to live up to her family's legacy, Hannah is struggling to be accepted into Notre Dame. But one would not know of her internal struggles if they were to look at her in her royal position within the school's social system.

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The "jock" is Colin Clemens. The son of a former basketball star of Warsaw High, Colin is driven by his father to perform and catch the attention of scouts so he can win a scholarship to play college ball.

The "artist" is Hannah Bailey. A beautiful but eccentric girl whose mother suffers from a mental disorder, Hannah is internally driven to get far away from her home and hometown to find adventure in California.

The "geek" is Jake Tusing. Driven into seclusion by an embarrassing experience in Junior High, Jake has isolated himself in his video games and music.

The "nice guy" is Mitch Reinholt. Driven to abide by the pressure of his peers, Mitch ignores his own good judgment and chooses instead his natural attraction to fit in with his friends.

"American Teen" focuses only on these students' school lives and their relationships with other teens. Due to this artistic choice, the documentary reveals little about the influence of parents, teachers, pastors, coaches and even the larger society of small-town life. This is both the film's strength and its weakness. The undistracted focus on teen relationships is remarkable. But to imply that this defines an American Teen is simply not true. These young people are a part of a larger familial, religious, political and social culture within their community. They develop mentoring relationships with other adults, teachers, pastors and coaches far beyond what this film represents. But perhaps that complete story is beyond the ability of any filmmaker to document.


1. When you were in high school, to which group did you belong? Was it a good experience for you or a difficult one? What drove you?

2. How much do you believe that your high school experience either helped or harmed your life?

3. At the end of the film, each of these people (who are now two years out of high school) write a note to describe where they are now. Which ones do you believe have changed the most? Which changed the least?

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