At first glance, “American Teen” may seem less like a Sundance Film Festival award winner and more like a spinoff of the ’80s classic “The Breakfast Club.” Warsaw Community High School in Indiana, the setting for the film, has all the stereotypes you’d need to set the stage for the standard American high school. There’s Meghan, the resident popular girl who breaks all the rules; Colin, the average jock striving to make that game-winning point; Hannah, the rebel who makes a point of not conforming; Mitch, the heartthrob who’s swayed by his popular click; and then there’s Jake, the band dork.
What sets this film apart from teen flicks like “The Breakfast Club” is its realistic — not stereotypical — portrayal of true-to-life high school students. There is an intensely real, documentary-like approach to the story, similar to that of the MTV show “True Life.” Just as “True Life” explores the daily ins and outs of a specific group of people, this movie explores the day-to-day ups and downs of a handful of high school students.
The film has a heavily unscripted flow — conversations are more akin to reality TV shows than any feature film. The subtle wit of “American Teen” hinges on statements like “I am an unpaired sock,” or, “I do love the ladies, but the ladies do not love me.” This is partially due to the fact that the students are portraying themselves in the film. Words are said that just wouldn’t make the cut in an ordinary movie.
I went in expecting the standard teenage dramatic high school film, something along the lines of “She’s All That” or “10 Things I Hate About You” — the fairy tale high school film topped with a textbook happy ending. “American Teen” is different.
Colin doesn’t have money for college unless he’s awarded a scholarship for basketball, while his father constantly makes a point of reminding him that failure to do so will result in military service. Scenes like this are the very same situations to which high school seniors across America can relate. There’s no room for a scene depicting a bunch of rowdy, underage kids in a bar, or a petty feud between the popular guys vying for prom king.
The film held my attention from the first, right up until each character crossed the stage at graduation. I felt like I knew the students, or at least went to school with them. I could picture members of my graduating class walking the halls of Warsaw High. The movie very successfully blurred the line between my specific memories of high school and what I watched unfold on screen. As I watched the popularity queen vandalize another student’s house, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, what a stuck up bitch.” When Hannah gets her heart broken via text message all I could think was, “Wow, I remember high school boys pulling that crap all the time.” It’s down right difficult not to feel that kind of bond with the characters.
Maybe that’s because there’s no sense of an everything-ends-well blockbuster, although I couldn’t help but laugh with the characters. Their daily lives seemed so familiar — at times awkward, but fun for the most part. At one point, Hannah partakes in a class demonstration of a job interview — an effort to prepare students for the real world — only to make a mockery of the entire process, treating the whole interview as a joke. Something about that specific scene hits all too close to home. I then was brought to the edge of tears as Meghan realized that life doesn’t favor the most popular people any more than the average Joe.
The characters are real, the drama is real, and nobody’s perfect. Jake struggles to overcome an acne-ridden face. Hannah is pale. Fallen queen bee Meghan is eventually punished. In short, the film accomplished what it set out to do — bring the over-used Hollywood stereotypes of American teenage life down to a realistic, relatable level.