Not Just Another Teen Movie,
Interview with Nanette Burstein
For all you nostalgic 30-somethings who lament that there hasn’t been a great teen movie since The Breakfast Club, Nanette Burstein’s documentary American Teen (in theatres July 25) just might cure your John Hughes blues. Set in a middle-American, Indiana high school and starring a cast of prototypical teens – the geek, the jock, the rebel, the popular girl and the misunderstood artsy girl – the film shows us that the torture we went through in high school is still going strong today.
At the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Burstein explained the idea came to her years ago after watching the 1985 documentary Seventeen, which, like American Teen was set in Indiana and stars a group of high school students struggling with the emotional confusion of being a teenager. “That age is such an important time of life,” says Burstein. “You have all this pressure from high school to be a certain way, you have no idea who you are, yet you’re having to make all these decisions about your future that you’re totally ill-informed about. It’s a really unique and complicated time in life and I thought it could be something that everybody could relate to on some level, so I wanted to tell it.”
She says that her intention was to take the archetypes and make them richer and more complicated than what she’d seen before in teen movies, which she observes tend to simplify the high school experience and break it down into four or five classic story lines – the “love across clique lines or class lines,” “the mean girls story,” “the loner kid looking for acceptance and love story” and “the sports story.”
“Those stories come from reality, I witnessed them in my own high school,” says Burstein, who admits that she herself started out as the popular girl in her Buffalo, NY high school but later became the artsy girl after a life-changing trip to Spain. “But I knew they are a lot more complicated in real life than they are depicted in teen fiction films,” she adds.
She also acknowledged that there are a lot of reality shows about teens on TV but they’re generally pretty superficial. “You have more opportunities in documentary to explore a character’s depth because the truth is stranger than fiction,” she says. “If you were to write certain things in fiction people would be like, “That’s so cliché, I’d never believe that.” But when it’s real, it’s like, “I can’t believe that’s real!”
Oh, but it is real. So very, painfully real. And this movie will gleefully serve as a reminder to anyone who ever got a pimple before the prom, or missed the winning shot, or had their heart broken to smithereens by a boy or girl who’s beneath you anyway, or… Well, you know what I mean.