With a simplistic name that disguises the depth of its topic, “American Teen” is a fantastically straightforward documentary that follows one year in the lives of a bunch of high-school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana. Director Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays In The Picture”) spent 10 months shooting during and after school hours and edited down over a thousand hours of footage into a few clear, archetypal story lines.

The film begins with a voiceover by one student the filmmakers follow, Hannah Bailey, who tells how “the teachers taught us America is a meritocracy, but our school is a caste system . . . this is all we’ve known, and it will be over in seven months. All we have to do is figure out what to do with the rest of our lives.” Cue the pensive acoustic guitar song; Burstein had no qualms about dramatizing these kids’ lives a bit, making a film that would certainly appeal to the demographic it portrays.

Burstein keeps the focus clearly on those two points; she documents the rigid cliques that dominate high-school life, with perspectives from the top and the bottom. She also observes the students struggling with the “what comes next?” question, a big part of which involves deciding whether to listen to your parents’ wishes or to ignore them.

American Teen
Director Nanette Burstein
Run Time 101 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens Oct. 11, 2008

Burstein’s particular brilliance is how she dredges up all the high-school stereotypes you’d expect — jock, nerd, princess, rebel, hunk — and finds the truth in them, while also digging deeper to show how much more is going on with these kids.

Take Colin Clemens: He’s the school’s basketball star, and he’s a popular and genuine nice guy, and girls like him. That’s your total jock stereotype, except, first, he’s not a bully; second, he’s under incredible pressure to win a sports scholarship to college; and third, his dad’s an Elvis impersonator who wants him to join the army, like Elvis did. Colin, to his credit, tells his dad, “I can’t kill anyone.” A pacifist jock? Well, maybe Burstein wouldn’t have got this from the hockey team.

“American Teen” flits around from character to character, accurately reflecting the changing loves and friendships within the teens. Hannah, a self-described outsider who loves music, art and photography, falls into a deep depression after being dumped by her boyfriend, the day after they make love for the first time. She misses weeks of school, reflecting a fear of peer judgment that was notably absent from “Juno.”

Her polar opposite is Megan Krizmanich, a rich girl who knows she’s at the top of the pecking order, and isn’t about to let anyone forget it. The cruelty she inflicts is simply shocking in its casualness. Megan takes revenge on one girl who she perceived as crossing her by mailing a topless photo of the girl to her entire class. We see Megan gleefully making a crank call to this girl: “Your parents know, your priest knows. Not only are you a slut, you’re dumb.” The fact that she’ll do this with cameras running, that she sees absolutely nothing wrong with it, is truly shocking.

Jake Tusing is a pimply, nerdy student whose only interests are playing computer games and the school’s marching band; Megan probably doesn’t even know he exists. Jake is painfully frank when he admits: “The reason I like video games is I always get the girl. If I had a girl, I wouldn’t feel like such a loser.” Jake’s too young to know yet that for every problem a girlfriend solves, she will bring two fresh ones. Nevertheless, the enterprising lad gets some dates, but one after another give up on him, and he struggles with his feelings of worthlessness.

Burstein, a big fan of 1980s’ John Hughes films (“Pretty In Pink,” “The Breakfast Club”) makes every attempt to show these kids’ lives as they see them. She also lets younger tastes dictate her style: “American Teen” is cut to the rhythms of a reality show, with a soundtrack gleaned from the kids’ iPods (The Ting Tings, Black Kids, Patrick Watson) and playful digressions into animated fantasies of the kids’ dreams and fears.

The intimacy of the camera to the action is incredible, catching a romantic breakup the instant it’s text-mailed, or a surreptitious act of vandalism well after school hours. It does make you wonder how much their presence altered the story, though. Hannah’s best friend — a guy — is seen lots but never explored by the film, particularly the fact that they never become a couple, despite going to the prom together. Could not wanting to come out of the closet be the reason? He, smart boy, avoids telling all to the camera.

Similarly, take the scene where Jake’s girlfriend of the moment, Lorin, goes to the pool with a stoner dude, Mike, and the two start making out hot and heavy. Surely they knew they were being filmed, and the question arises, are they playing to the camera? Indeed, there is some hot debate online — initiated by students who weren’t featured in the film — as to how much the story was “massaged” by the filmmakers. Sour grapes? Maybe, but there are moments in the film where you’ll wonder.

Despite this, there are plenty of scenes that ring entirely true. When Hannah’s mom, a diagnosed manic-depressive with frantic eyes, tells her daughter not to dream of going to film school, because “you’re not special,” you almost want to cheer when she tells mom, “it’s not your life.”

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