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.”
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.”