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The queen bee, the jock-under-pressure, the nerd, the arty outsider. All are teenage archetypes, and each gets a fresh interpretation in American Teen, Nanette Burstein's new documentary. The film follows 4 students through their final year at Warsaw High School in Warsaw, Indiana, and is with them through Megan's college application to her "dream school," Colin's efforts to earn a college basketball scholarship, Jake's attempts to woo girls, and Hannah's determination to leave the Midwest behind. Burstein talks about why she thinks teenagers today aren't all that different from their parents.
LHJ: What inspired you to make this film? What did you feel you had to say about the high school experience that hasn't been said before?
NB: Even though there are a lot of movies and reality shows about high school life, a lot of those films are marketed at "tweens" and they tend to be more like fairy tales. As for the reality shows, they don't get very deep. There didn't seem to be anything out there that showed how complicated [being a teenager] is -- the insecurity and the vulnerability and the struggle to figure out who you are, even if you're just a regular teenager. And I really wanted to do something about that.
LHJ: How did you choose the location of the film, Warsaw, Indiana? Were you looking for a place that represented typical "Americana?"
NB: I picked the Midwest for that reason, and I wanted a town that only had one high school, because I thought there'd be more social pressure. I wanted it to be economically mixed, and, of course, I needed a high school that would cooperate, that would give me the access that I needed. So I called hundreds of high schools in three different states...and after that it was just a matter of which kids that I found in each of these schools. I went in and interviewed all of the incoming seniors of at least 10 high schools -- probably 2,000 kids in all.
LHJ: What was it about the particular 4 that you ended up settling on?
NB: I was looking for kids in different social cliques. They didn't have to be a particular archetype, but I did want two things: One, I wanted kids who had a really compelling drama -- they needed to accomplish something that year, give me a real story to follow. If you look at each of them, they all have something that they need to accomplish: Colin needs to get a sports scholarship or he'll have to go into the military, Hannah needed to escape, et cetera. And they each had that. They also each surprised me -- they each seemed one way on the surface, when in fact they were much more complicated than that. Take Megan, for example. She is the queen bee, but she's also had a horrible family tragedy . . . .
LHJ: What about you, where did you grow up?
NB: I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and I changed a lot in high school. It was a really formative time in my life. I started out in the popular crowd and ended up realizing that they were not really my friends, so that ended up not really working out for me! And then I ended up with a pink Mohawk, and then eventually settled somewhere in the middle, just sort of arty and bohemian and realizing that I wanted to make movies. So I came into my own, through a lot of struggle.
LHJ: What were your subjects' reactions to the finished work?
NB: Remarkably positive, actually. I guess I was most concerned about Megan, because she was the most "complicated." There are some actions she takes in the film that I thought might be regrettable for her, but she was fine with it. She felt that it was an accurate representation of who she was at that time in her life, and she didn't have a problem with it. I showed it to her family, too, and they were equally positive in their response.
LHJ: As for parents -- was it a conscious choice for the film to be as little "about them" as possible?
NB: Well, it seemed like the kids just sort of cut their parents off. It seemed to me like there was very much a Lord of the Flies existence going on there, and, after all, when you're a senior in high school. . . . The parents obviously were involved, but not involved in their kids' social lives at all. And it's not that they didn't want to be, it's that their kids just cut them out. But where they were involved was in deciding their kids' futures, and that's where I included them in the movie, and I think they made a big impact in this way.
LHJ: Do you think the film focused enough on the "intellectual aspects" of high school?
NB: Well, I've got to be honest -- schoolwork was not a big part of these kids' lives! If you were really smart, you didn't necessarily have to do a lot of schoolwork to get good grades, so it wasn't a huge part of their lives. Also, none of the students I followed had great academic challenges that they needed to overcome -- it just wasn't a big part of their stories. And I didn't think watching people study would be very interesting!
LHJ: We do hear these conflicting views when it comes to teenagers today. One is -- and I suppose this is more true on the East and West coast -- that they're overburdened, constantly under pressure, hell-bent to get into the best schools . . . .
NB: It was very different in the Midwest.
LHJ: And on the other hand, you hear pundits complaining about teenagers getting dumber, feeling less engaged. They're not very political, they're glued to their video games. . . . What do you think accounts for this dichotomy?
NB: Well, when I was in high school, nobody cared about politics either! Actually, the reason I wound up with the pink Mohawk is that I spent a year abroad in Spain my junior year. So I went over to Europe, and the teenagers were just so different over there -- they did care, enormously. I think we expect future generations to mirror what we saw in the Sixties, but the reality is, what does Iraq have to do with most teenagers today? There's no draft, like in the Vietnam era, so the war doesn't affect their lives, for the most part.
LHJ: And yet if Colin hadn't gotten a scholarship he would have been forced to join the military.
NB: He wouldn't have been forced, though -- it would have ultimately been his choice. I mean, back in the Sixties, you had the draft, you had to go. And the reason I think teenagers in other parts of the world are more civically engaged is because they're not as isolated. Here in America we live in this giant, vast country, and even with the economy going downhill, we've got pretty good lives. When you're in high school, you're in this little bubble. You don't even know the world yet, and that's why who's popular and who's not, and who's dating whom, and the rumor mill is so important -- because this is the only world you know. And that's ultimately what the film deals with -- that ultimately these kids' lives are going to change, especially once they get away from where they live and have new experiences.
LHJ: Yet you're not willing to condemn this world?
NB: Well, look, I think it's sad. But I do also think it's really tough. Being in high school is an incredibly challenging time. The reason I picked a town that only had one high school was because I wanted to show that this school was their whole world. And then there's so much pressure to not even leave the state for college, and so it can continue to be your world. That's why it's so exceptional that Hannah leaves, and I think that's why people really relate to her. But yes, high school is really tough, because you live in this little fishbowl -- everyone's judging everyone, there's this predetermined social hierarchy, and you're just trying to figure out who you are amidst all these pressures. You're so vulnerable at that age.
LHJ: And then on the other hand you have these students who are so ambitious and so determined to get out there and see the world.
NB: I think it is a cultural thing. On the East and West coasts it's different. But the Midwest is a place where you're more isolated. You're in the middle of the country, you're exposed to less, it's more conservative, and I think there's more of a fear of the larger world and wanting to keep your kids close, God forbid they get corrupted. There's a concern about wanting to keep that innocence, because there is an innocence in the Midwest, and parents want to maintain that for their kids. The Northeast is very different -- there are a lot more big cities, you come into contact with different cultures more often, it's more cosmopolitan by and large.
LHJ: What did making the film teach you about parenting? You just gave birth to a baby girl.
NB: I did, yes, her name's Natasha.
LHJ: Did you feel some of the things you learned give you cause for concern?
NB: If anything it was kind of a relief! I realized that the issues that teenagers went through in this film are a lot of the same things that I went through in high school -- there isn't this enormous gap. The media tends to focus on more extreme cases -- severe anorexia or school shootings or extreme sexual promiscuity, pregnancy, that sort of thing -- and while all that does happen, I don't think it's the norm. Sure, there are things that are different. Technology is different, the way kids communicate is different, but the emotional issues are the same.
LHJ: Do you worry about being able to protect her from some of the forces that you recorded in the film?
NB: Of course. She'll be at that age where they're semi-independent, you know, where they're seeking their independence but haven't gotten there yet, and she'll struggle. But there's only so much you can protect them from -- they just have to go through it.
Originally published on LHJ.com, July 2008