Maybe kids are just adept at packaging themselves nowadays—I'm sure these Indiana high-school students all had their own MySpace pages—but I have never seen a more colorful pack of stereotypes in a nonfiction film. American Teen traces a year in the lives of actual teenagers: Megan is a brat with a cruel streak; Colin is a nice-guy jock; Jake is a cripplingly shy band nerd. Director Nanette Burstein clearly identifies with Hannah, an adorable wannabe filmmaker. They're all trapped in the smallish town of Warsaw for the time being, and they're all unhappy about it. Except for a heartthrob named Mitch, that is. His friends are pressuring him not to date Hannah, who isn't part of his social circle—but he doesn't seem very torn up about the decision either way. For Hannah, on the other hand, their breakup is catastrophic.
The teens' senior-year dramas are so carefully condensed that entire conversations sound scripted. All the rough edges of personalities have been sanded down until each act of mischief or retreat into depression can be traced to a certain cause. Anyone who has seen MTV's The Real World knows it isn't so hard to sift through nonfiction until it acquires the gloss of untruth. The real question isn't whether scenes were staged, but why Burstein wanted them to look as though they were.
American Teen is slick and snappy, and it's easy to get engrossed in the narrative. But it's also just as easy to forget it ever happened. When updates on the teens' lives rolled just before the closing credits, I found myself hoping something bizarre had happened to one of them, just to see the edifice buckle a bit. No such luck—they're all doing precisely what you'd expect. American Teen succeeds in being exactly as crisp, entertaining, and useless as a romantic comedy.