American Teen by Nanette Burstein

14 Jul

Bibliographic Information

American Teen directed by Nanette Burstein, produced by 57th and Irving, 2008, 95 minutes.

Plot Summary

American Teen is a documentary that follows five different teenagers through their senior year at Warsaw Community High School in Warsaw, Indiana. The filmmakers focus on teenagers from very different social groups.  There is Megan -the popular, smart girl,  Colin -the jock, Jake -the gamer, Mitch – the heartthrob, and Hannah – the artist. The filmmakers were given complete access to the students’ lives at home and school so that the viewer witnesses the trials and tribulations of the senior year, including homecoming, college applications, prom, and graduation.  Megan worries that her high grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities won’t get her into Norte Dame.  The demands she places on herself make her do some manipulative things, thus reinforcing her mean girl reputation.  Colin needs an athletic scholarship to go to college but his up and down performance as the star basketball player may jeopardize his chances. Jake wants desperately to have a girlfriend and go to prom but his social awkwardness creates challenges for him.  Mitch is easygoing and good-natured until his relationship with Hannah reveals a weak aspect of his character.  Hannah tries to maintain her original and outsider status and fight conformity, but her relationship with Mitch makes her vulnerable as she socializes with the more popular crowd.

Critical Evaluation

American Teen is a true version of The Breakfast Club. Unlike the John Hughes’s movie, however, it is not a comedy.  The profiles of these students reveal the different experiences young people have at high school depending on the clique they are in.  The film captures both the highs and lows of high school life that young viewers will be able to easily relate to.

The portraits of the students all feel authentic. Unlike most reality shows, the filmmakers don’t sacrifice truth to make their story entertaining.  Each “character” shows his or her strengths and flaws and the viewer sees the teens as complex individuals who make mistakes and sometimes hurt people.  This is especially true of Megan, whose portrayal is probably the most negative of the five students in the film.  Even as she mistreats others, the viewer sympathizes with her social and emotional struggles.

While we root for all the students to success, it is Hannah that walks away with the film (at least for this viewer).  She is the classic oddball in high school, too creative and original to fit in with most high school cliques.  The viewer watches her journey and feels the tension of between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in.  How much Hannah changes as a result of her senior year experience is one of the most emotionally engaging parts of the documentary.

The film is limited in the sense that it focuses on white, suburban teens and doesn’t reflect the racial diversity of most school’s student populations.  I don’t know if this reflects the demographics of Indiana, where the documentary was shot.

Reader’s Annotation

American Teen documents the lives of five very different students as they navigate their way through senior year in high school.  Better than any reality show, the documentary reflects the joys and sorrows of teens as they prepare to leave the world they know and head into a future that remains uncertain.

Information about the author

From the director’s Wikipedia page, we learn that Nanette Burstein is an American film and television director. Burstein has produced, directed, and co-directed many documentaries, which have won her many awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary and the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Documentary.[


Documentary film

Curriculum Ties


Booktalking Ideas

Think about the choices the filmmaker makes and decide if she’s fair to her teenager subjects

How accurate a portrayal is the movie of teenage life at your school?

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 10 and up

Challenge Issues

The film is rated Pg-13, mostly for language.

Why did I include this title?

American Teen remains one of the most accurate portrayals of high school life that I have seen on the screen.  By focusing on different characters, filmmaker Nanette Burstein makes the documentary compelling and true.  Just like graduation, the end will leave you feeling both sad and triumphant.




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