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BFI London Film Festival


Running with both live and virtual premieres across 12 days in Octobe: 7-18 October 2020



LFF - American Teen

American Teen is Nanette Burstein’s look at American teens (obviously) through the eyes of the senior year at a high school in Warsaw, Indiana. Or possibly a mockumentary homage to John Hughes, if you belief the IMDB posts! What Burstein has either discovered, or cleverly edited to discover, is that those clichés you have seen in every teen movie since The Breakfast Club, are actually true. We have the Megan the popular bitch (with hidden darkness of her own), Colin the local basketball star in need of a scholarship, Jake, the marching band loser in need of a girlfriend and Hannah the artistic, slightly disturbed loner – and hero of the piece in many ways.


Covering a year in their lives, the editing has created a neat story arch for each of the principles covering their trials and triumphs in their final year at high school. We see heartbreak (dumped by text message, harsh), bullying (a particularly vicious incident in which a girl’s private picture to her boyfriend makes its way round the entire year and beyond), depression, peer pressure, parental pressure and a prom. Each of the four leads has their high points as well as struggles and Burstein makes it easy for the audience to have some sympathy even for the worst offenders – although Megan really pushes that to the limit at times.


It is Hannah though that the audience really roots for and I think Burstein does too. When her “where are they now” section came up during the closing credits there was a big round of applause for her fate. Of course Burstein must have clicked with Hannah artistically, as she also wants to be a film maker and has an edgy creativity that I’m sure most directors would be drawn to. She is also the most intelligent, layered and sympathetic of the teens. But as with any documentary, it is tough to know if that was real or editing.


Although illuminating in a kind of “everything we thought is true” way, I’m not sure what American Teen really achieves though. If it had been fiction, I think I would have been happy to walk out of the cinema feeling like I had seen an interesting, funny, well written feature. But I think we demand more of documentaries and I’m not sure Burstein has delivered much more here because the message of American Teen seems to be everything you hoped and feared about teenagers is true, they really are brilliant and hideous at the same time, they can be mean and loving – sometimes all things in the same day. Perhaps that came as a surprise to Burstein.




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