The best documentarians somehow have the talent to find and bring out the most revealing parts of their subjects; it's a talent that's at least as important as those of most fiction-film directors. One of the best documentarians is the filmmaker Nanette Burstein, whose earlier work, "On The Ropes," was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of 1999. She spent the 2005 to 2006 academic year with some seniors at a high school in Warsaw, Indiana. She found four of them to follow throughout that year, recording everything they did, went through and, in a couple of cases, suffered, from fall through spring. She calls it "American Teen," and it's fascinating from beginning to end.
Megan, the queen of the school and a wealthy surgeon's daughter, turns out to have had a tragedy in her family; Colin, the big basketball star, hoping for a college athletic scholarship, must do well on the court if he's to get one. Hannah, an outsider who can't stand life in Warsaw, has a mother who's institutionalized with bipolar disorder, and may have the same syndrome herself. And Jake, his face blossoming with acne, thinks of himself as a nerd who has no friends, plays video games and can't relate to anyone.
We only barely meet any of the school's faculty and admininstration, but the bits we do see will make you shudder at the low level of competence we require of them, and help you understand why so many teens can't stand school.
Megan, who's dying to be accepted by Notre Dame, where her brothers and sister went, does a stupid thing one night by TPing a house and writing "Fag" on a window. Colin, a nice kid without great expectations, and whose father has a sideline as an Elvis Presley imitator, thinks he has to do it all on the court and so the team suffers. Hannah, who has a dream to go to San Francisco and be a filmmaker, finds a nice guy to be her boyfriend and then is dumped by, what else, a text-message. And Jake, the nerd, thinks that if he gets out of Warsaw he'll reinvent himself and have a better life.
Burstein has found a way to intrude herself into all their lives without making anyone self-conscious about it, or at least so it seems. People talk freely, give vent to their emotions, go through some hell, and she and her camera are right there. It's possible that some of the scenes were staged, or repeated, for the camera, but they don't get in the way of her film. "American Teen" is fascinating, wonderfully well-made, and gives those of us who are a little past parenting a good look at what our own kids went through; it's not pretty.