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High School Confidential

'American Teen' is fascinating, stunning and terrifying, all at once

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Ohmigod Megan is such a bitch. She, like, totally won't let anyone go out with Geoff even though they're just friends, and when Erica e-mailed Jeff a topless picture of herself, Megan stole it and forwarded it to everyone in school and then called Erica and told her she was a slut!

And Hannah's boyfriend Joel is so awesome, and they're so great together, which is so not like other high school couples, because they totally love each other and aren't just hooking up, except for that one night when they hooked up, and afterward, Hannah was all, "Do you have feelings for me?" and Joel was all, "No," and then Hannah didn't go to school for 17 days and she has a band and everything. And the popular kids from the basketball team don't even know her, except that Mitch saw her playing in her band and he got a crush on her even though he's like the second-best basketball player in the school, and he asked her out! Ohmigod!

American Teen! Imagine if John Hughes had actually gone to a real high school and taken notes for a year before making such surreal films as The Breakfast Club, which was about five stereotypes that have detention together and discover that they aren't so different after all, which is stupid, because their differences were based on John Hughes' completely imaginary idea of what high school kids are like. I mean, it was a fun movie, but nobody actually acts like that.

Trying to get past the stock version of High School, U.S.A., director Nanette Burstein trained her camera on a shifting group of Indiana teenagers as they couple and uncouple during their senior year. While some of them may, superficially, seem like teen-movie stereotypes (there's a nerdy outcast and a star basketball player), for the most part, they don't play to type. They're just ordinary kids who can't be summed up in a one-sentence character description, and it's weird, scary, horrifying, embarrassing and enlightening to watch them mope and slouch and leap through four seasons of pain and romance.

The heart of the movie is Hannah Bailey. She hates her town, Warsaw, Ind., and wants to move to California to be a filmmaker. She plays guitar, sings (atrociously!) in a band and considers herself an outsider. But she's not a modern movie goth-girl stereotype: She has a large, close-knit group of friends; she looks and dresses like a Midwestern milkmaid; and her attitude is cheery and optimistic. Well, until her boyfriend of two years dumps her after the first time they have sex.

Hannah shows the connectedness of Warsaw High as she moves between groups of friends and dating cohorts, and in the end is the only one to come away from the film seeming like a full-fledged person.

But then most 18-year-olds are not yet fledged. Oh, they've got a little fletching, but they're hardly fledged.

The saddest and most compelling case in the film is Jake, who would be the stereotypical nerd boy (braces, acne that's visible from outer space, plays in the marching band) except that he's so aware of his own awkwardness. He's like a Ph.D. in adolescent psychology who's been teleported into the body of a geeky teenager in order to study himself. The film catches him repeatedly asking girls out in cringe-inducing sequences wherein he'll note how much of a loser he is, or stammer out weird inanities in an attempt at making conversation, or just suddenly go silent.

Strangely, he winds up, through sheer perseverance, actually going out with a girl or two. And this is where American Teen goes from enlightening to horrifying to downright strange: While Jake sits near her, his girlfriend, Lorin, texts another boy to make a date. The filmmakers then tape her as she makes out with the other guy. And then they tape her lying to Jake about it the next day. It's creepy and voyeuristic and one of the most interesting things I've ever seen on film.

Ditto for a sequence wherein bitchy rich/popular girl Megan spray-paints a penis and the word "fag" on the house of her enemy. That the cameras simply roll while Megan breaks the law is odd enough; that, the next day at school, they film as the authorities try to identify the vandal is weirder still.

While a documentary usually has to take something like a personal point of view, simply because of the limits of their filmmakers' capacity to record, Burstein and crew have acquired what seems more like a god's perspective. The teens are constantly wearing microphones and shot, and the only major scene Burstein misses is Hannah and Joel's first and only sexual encounter and immediate breakup.

In the end, what's produced is a stunning, somewhat terrifying, face-to-palm-inducing film that's far too human for its own good. There's a reason the John Hughes-types of the world don't write their teenagers to act and speak like teenagers, but there's an even better reason to see teenagers act and speak (and text) like teenagers.

With intense editing chops, a few artful animation sequences and an eye for narrative, Burstein has shown that, sometimes, a glimpse of reality is far more dramatic than another movie wherein the outcast boy pays a neighborhood drunk to pretend to be an Arab sheik so he can get a date with the prom queen's nerdy best friend.

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