“American Teen”

Not another teen movie.

Or, more precisely, not just another teen movie.

"American Teen" calls itself a documentary, but it’s a documentary the way all those "reality" TV shows depict real life: in suspiciously contrived and far-from-spontaneous fashion.

Yet "American Teen," in contrast to most of what passes for reality on TV these days, actually focuses on recognizable people. Painfully recognizable people. People we’ve all known — and been.

Those of us, that is, who have survived the coming-of-age minefield known as high school and have lived to tell the tale.

Unlike such fabricated "reality" shows as MTV’s "The Hills," which bear about as much relation to everyday life as Alice’s trip through the looking glass, "American Teen" focuses on five high school seniors who’d never get a shot on MTV.

Moreover, the filmmaker focusing on them is an actual documentarian: Nanette Burstein, co-director of the beguiling 2002 Hollywood documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture," which chronicled the rise and fall of actor-turned-studio-chief-turned-pariah Robert Evans.

And while the five kids Burstein follows in "American Teen" are hardly the stuff of Hollywood legend, that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen them before — in everything from "American Pie" to "High School Musical."

The movies "American Teen" most resembles, however, are those funny, wistful charmers "Home Alone" auteur John Hughes wrote and directed in the ’80s, from "16 Candles" to "Pretty in Pink."

Indeed, Burstein cites Hughes’ movies as an inspiration for "American Teen" — and you can see the resemblance between the two, right down to the movie’s poster, which re-creates the poster (and the poses struck by its stars) for Hughes’ 1985 hit "The Breakfast Club."

Like "The Breakfast Club," Burstein’s movie focuses on five stereotypical teens thrown together for a day of detention, who discover they’ve got a lot more in common than they assumed.

Unlike "The Breakfast Club," however, not everything follows a carefully scripted plan in "American Teen" — although there are times when things unfold in such tidy fashion you can almost feel Burstein orchestrating the action.

Set in the small (population 12,000) Indiana town of Warsaw, "American Teen" focuses on five very different students trying to navigate the often treacherous waters of senior year.

This being "Hoosiers" territory, basketball player Colin Clemens is Warsaw High’s resident jock. But life’s not exactly nothing but net for Colin — not with his dad, a Vegas-era Elvis impersonator, reminding him, and reminding him, that if he doesn’t get a college basketball scholarship, it’s off to the Army for him. No wonder Colin’s been missing free throws lately.

Blond, bitchy campus queen Megan Krizmanich, meanwhile, worries too — especially because her physician father expects her to follow family tradition by attending Notre Dame. But Megan’s way of dealing with such pressures, by giving others a hard time, could come back to haunt her. And, considering some of the dirty tricks she pulls, that would only be fair.

At the other end of the status scale: arty rebel Hannah Bailey, who knows there’s life beyond Warsaw — preferably at film school in San Francisco. That is, if she can survive a devastating breakup with her boyfriend and convince her parents that she deserves a chance to follow her dreams out of town.

But at least Hannah’s got enough personality to attract the attention of Mitch Reinholt, Colin’s dreamy, prince-of-a-guy teammate, who may hang with the cool kids but doesn’t always march in lockstep with them.

And then there’s Jake Tusing, who’d love to be a blip on anybody’s radar besides his own. A classic band nerd — complete with Beatles-style bowl haircut and a pizza-parlor complexion — Jake plays video games and plots his strategy for finding a girlfriend. Or a date. Or someone of the opposite sex to acknowledge his existence. (Maybe the new girl in the band, who can’t be aware of his persona non grata status yet, will talk to him before she learns the awful truth.)

Once "American Teen" plows through its Mousekeeter roll-call introductions, the movie becomes less contrived and more absorbing, as the various characters confront a variety of emotions and issues.

One that’s suspiciously absent: drug use.

Alcohol definitely seems to be the drug of choice for these Warsaw teens; the absence of marijuana or other mind-altering substances gives "American Teen" an almost quaint — and decidedly timeless — quality.

And maybe that’s the point, to remind audiences that, however the trappings of high school life change, the traps — the snap judgments, the petty pigeon-holing of people who, for whatever reason, don’t fit where you do — remain the same.

"American Teen" probably would have had a bit more depth, and more authenticity, if Burstein had resisted some easy choices, from the cutesy "Breakfast Club" echoes to the animated sequences depicting the central characters’ inner lives. As entertaining as they are, they still seem out of place in a movie that calls itself a documentary.

Whether "American Teen" qualifies as a documentary is debatable, but I suppose that’s what happens when a filmmaker edits more than a thousand hours of footage into a hundred-minute movie.

"American Teen" may not play like a textbook documentary, but at least the emotions it explores always seem real — even when the circumstances surrounding them don’t.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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