It’s axiomatic that during the 1980s teen comedies that didn’t completely insult the intelligence of their audience had a home at the movies. The less frequently stated corollary is that television, in the decades since, has been the medium upholding the youth angst tradition. And so although the poster for American Teen nods openly to The Breakfast Club, director Nanette Burstein has drawn heavily from small-screen conventions for her new documentary.
Regrettably, it is not the sharp writing of My So-Called Life or Veronica Mars from which Burstein seeks inspiration so much as the cynical editing strategies, cued crap-pop and staged re-enactments of The Real World. American Teen, which follows the senior year of five supposedly archetypal high school students in rural Indiana, is entertaining enough, but it’s still 100 minutes of pure exploitation. To give herself cover, Burstein repeatedly makes the point that this generation lives their lives in electronic media. But just because the subjects are willing to have their private horrors filmed doesn’t mean that they should be.