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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “American Teen” Director Nanette Burnstein

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "American Teen" Director Nanette Burnstein

From John Hughes to Judd Apatow, the plight of the American teen has never lacked appeal in popular culture. But even this steadfast truism doesn’t make the concept for “American Teen” immediately salable. A nonfiction portrait of several prototypical seventeen year olds in Warsaw, Indiana, the movie finds all the stereotypes — from the jocks to the outcasts — in real life. “I understood that there were certain teen stories that happen in real life. I was going after those,” says director Nanette Burstein, speaking from her home in Los Angeles where she recently gave birth.

Burstein spent nine months living in the small suburban town, where her crew became deeply involved in the social needs and future prospects of their subjects. “It wasn’t my intention to make a real life ‘The Breakfast Club,'” she says, acknowledging that one of the posters for her movie recalls Hughes’ 1985 hit. Sometimes, however, art imitates life. “In hindsight,” she adds, “it does resemble it in certain ways.”

Burstein’s latest documentary departs from the ruthless world of Hollywood politics she explored in “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and heads into subtler territory more akin to the interpersonal human drama of her mini-series “Film School.” Nevertheless, the idea for “American Teen,” as straightforward as the title suggests, predates all her recent work. She first envisioned the project in the early 1980s, after seeing the PBS documentary “Seventeen,” a verite account of teenagers in the midwest, and pitched her similar project as a series. “For whatever reason, the market wasn’t right for it at the time,” she says.

Decades later, Burstein had an easier time getting “American Teen” off the ground as a feature. Over the course of nine months, she collected her budget with help from A&E IndieFilms and Cinetic Media. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, during a period when sales where slim, Burstein started getting offers immediately after the first industry screening. Fielding proposals from nearly every specialty division at the festival, Burstein had them pitch her marketing campaigns on the spot, and eventually settled with Paramount Vantage, which opens the film in limited release Friday, July 25.

At this stage, she’s satisfied with the decision. “Paramount Vantage has been doing a lot of word-of-mouth screenings,” she says, referring to hundreds of previews taking place around the country. “Other distributors like to hold it back and not screen it too much, but Vantage has taken the opposite approach.” She adds that the recent decision to scale down the division hasn’t affected promotion for the film. “I have to be honest,” she says. “I was nervous. They reassured me, and the proof is in the pudding. I haven’t seen any less enthusiasm or aggressiveness in getting the film out there.”

The “Breakfast Club”-inspired poster to Nanette Burnstein’s “American Teen.” Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

In fact, “American Teen” seems like an indie tentpole for the division, which has involved all five main characters from the film in its campaign. That interactivity — coupled with a highly popular Facebook page for the film, the first of its kind — represent a concerted effort to distinguish “American Teen” from its fictional precedents. “The John Hughes films were great because they were the first teen movies ever,” says Burstein. “Even so, they play like fairy tales.” Not everyone gets a clean happy ending in her movie, although it begs mentioning that “American Teen” fails to represent every facet of America. “I wanted racial diversity,” she said, “but I went to the Midwest because I wanted that timeless and innocence of Americana, and I discovered that small towns in the Midwest are very white.” Burstein did include an African American subject in the production, but he didn’t make the final cut. “I was really forcing it,” she says. “He was never really comfortable on camera.”

Still, there’s a sense of completeness to the portrait resulting from Burstein’s decision to stay out of the story. “I appreciate Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield‘s movies, but in this kind of film it was their story,” she explains. Indeed, intimate encounters form the core of “American Teen.” Burstein captures late night sobbing sessions, text message break-ups and even vandalism. In several scenes, it’s hard not to think of the camera as a willing accomplice in the destructive behavior. Burstein nonetheless insists she helped out when she could. Her most successful participant, aspiring filmmaker Hannah Bailey, benefited greatly from having the documentarian around. “There was a lot of time not on camera when I took Hannah to see a councilor,” she says. “Her parents weren’t around, so I felt like her parent.”

Because we don’t see these encounters, “American Teen” comes very close to feeling like a scripted movie. Naturally, that’s its biggest selling point. After last year’s atrocious returns for nearly all theatrical documentaries, the chances of a documentary that resembles a narrative feature appear better than most. “It seems that last year was just a bad year,” Burstein says. “‘American Teen’ is screening really well for audiences of all ages around the country.” Then again, nothing is definite. “I’m hoping that it will be successful in theaters,” she says. “It’s a bit like gambling. You never know.”

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This movie is no documentary. I was appalled to find that Burstein shamelessly uses all the same transparent techniques and tricks of reality tv to manipulate and cheapen her subjects. The result is superficial, uninsightful, and plain insulting to its audience. And to what end? Did anyone really learn anything about teens in this movie? We need documentary films to counteract the lack of truth and journalistic integrity that’s rampant in corporate media- NOT to mimic it. And one last thing- if you’re going to focus on teenagers in the midwest where every happens to be white, don’t call it “American Teen”. Duh.


Eric writes:

“Granted, Xerox was the corporate sponsor for Seventeen. But its association with PBS from the outset should, at least, make this particular distinction somewhat moot here.”

Have you seen “Seventeen?” Usually films made for PBS are heavily self-censored, whether or not the filmmakers even realize that’s what they are doing (maybe they’re just genteel folk?) — that was more the case back in 1982. The filmmakers clearly cared not a whit for PBS — the film is filled with things PBS would never broadcast, even today. The film is even framed ignoring “tv cutoff” — clearly they must have seen the film as having a life other than on TV. They made the film they wanted to make, to hell with TV. Biting the hand that feeds them.

Look at the five films funded in the same grant, and at Seventeen — there is quite a difference in attitude and filmmaking. Only Ricky Leacock’s film holds up, the others are drivel.


Poster was the incorrect word. I was referring to the ad in the LA TIMES.

Betsy McLane


Betsy, it’s a terrible shame, but the box office returns for docs are so dismal in general, that not mentioning that a film is a doc in the poster or commercial is just one more way for the filmmakers and distributor to try and get audiences to see the film. As for “scantily clad,” are you looking at a different poster than I am? The only one showing even so much as a shoulder in this poster is a guy:


Eric writes:

“According to some reports, PBS did air it at least once, but eventually deemed the subject the matter too risky for broadcast television. However, it’s still accurate to call “Seventeen” a “PBS documentary” since that was, after all, the source of its funding.”

Not true. No funding came from PBS, it was funded by NEH and Xerox. It has never aired on PBS in any form — though a preview of the film was sent down the line so that the local affiliates could get riled up about it.

Eric, you may read all sorts of reports (none of which you can identify) but they are not true.

eric kohn

Granted, Xerox was the corporate sponsor for Seventeen. But its association with PBS from the outset should, at least, make this particular distinction somewhat moot here.


SEVENTEEN (a film so shocking, even today, that it seriously damaged the filmmakers’ careers.)just may be the best “teen” documentary ever made, but what about SIXTEEN IN WEBSTER GROVE, Keva Rosenfeld’s ALL AMERICAN HIGH, let alone HIGH SCHOOL I and II, the latter of which was just listed in DOX Magazine’s 50 most interesting documentaries of all time–and this with an EU -based truly pan-global focus on documentaries. The thing that gets me about AMERICAN TEEN is the posed advertising/poster campaign. Nothing wrong with documentary filmmakers using slick ad techniques, but please do mention that it is a documentary; plus, is it really necessary to put the posed scantily glad girl up front?

I have not seen the film yet, so it may be a very worthwhile effort, but let’s look at our documentary history before we start proclaiming absolutes.

Betsy A. McLane


Frankly, I think the least accurate thing about this movie is the title “documentary”, though it?s certainly described as that, so it?s not Kohn?s fault. This was not an honest portrayal of high school, it was a “Laguna Beach” style scripted reality show by a filmmaker who came in with a set idea of what she wanted from her young cast, and refused to let anything they might do deviate from those expectations, or suprise either her or us in either way. I hated this film.

eric kohn

Actually, it’s historically ignorant and just plain wrong to insist that “Seventeen” WASN’T a PBS documentary. This wonderful film was indeed commissioned by PBS as part of the “Middletown” series about Muncie, Indiana in 1982. According to some reports, PBS did air it at least once, but eventually deemed the subject the matter too risky for broadcast television. However, it’s still accurate to call “Seventeen” a “PBS documentary” since that was, after all, the source of its funding.

eric kohn

Make of it what you will.


“The John Hughes films were great because they were the first teen movies ever,” says Burstein.

Is it possible she REALLY said this, Eric? Is it possible she meant something else? I only ask because how is it possible that anyone could think that John Hughes movies were the first teen movies?

david redmon

I’d be interested in hearing what the directors of SEVENTEEN have to say about AMERICAN TEEN, assuming they’ve seen it. The two films couldn’t be any more different. Seventeen isn’t a PBS film – PBS didn’t have the courage to show Seventeen at the time it was made, given their impression of so-called “controversial” content. It remains one of the greatest U.S. documentaries ever made, but never distributed/released on DVD.


Please note: “Seventeen” is not a “PBS Documentary” — calling it that is historically ignorant and just plain wrong. See this for a tiny bit of background:

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