Most weekends I wouldn’t choose “American Teen” at my local multiplex, but there’s not much opening in August and, as you Hoosiers know, there’s a local angle. Nanette Burstein’s new documentary was shot in Warsaw, Ind., close enough to Fort Wayne that the high schools play in the same conference. I had to see how this school of “the region,” as journalists call the area they don’t particularly want to cover, came across on the big screen.
The good news: You recognize Warsaw immediately.
The bad news: You recognize Warsaw immediately.
I don’t know why you go to documentaries — and box office receipts show that you and I are the only ones who do — but I go to learn something I didn’t know already. I like a doc that surprises me, takes me someplace I’ve not yet been, shows me something I didn’t know, or shows me something I did know in a new way. For years, the story of the American high school experience has been that it’s tough, it’s hard, it’s an experience you never forget, but at the end it’s all OK and you head out into the world a stronger person, no matter if you were a jock, a geek, a social, or — you get the idea.
And that’s pretty much what “American Teen” was, too. In this year-in-the-life examination of senior year, there is a jock, a geek, a social/prom queen, a misfit and a heartthrob, and we watch them interact for a year. There was a certain amount of drama — will the jock get a scholarship? Will the prom queen get into Notre Dame? Will the geek get into the Guinness Book of World Records for the worst acne/haircut combination of the century? — but no part of that was really in doubt. Because I saw “The Breakfast Club.” So did Burstein, evidently:
I suppose this is necessary for the marketing; audiences are happiest when they know what they’re getting into, right down to the last scene. But it got on my nerves after a while, especially when so many things were left on the table, unexplored. The role of parents, for instance, nearly all of whom, in this movie, were monsters. OK, not monsters. But steeped in awfulness — the rich girl’s doctor father, the jock’s Elvis-impersonating father, the misfit’s fearful and parochial non-supporters. When the rich girl retaliates with vandalism against a student-council member who dared defy her — and on the life-or-death matter of the prom theme, yet! — her father’s only reaction (that we see) is to tell her her biggest mistake was getting caught. The Elvis impersonator tells his son if he can’t get a basketball scholarship, it’s off to the Army. Poor kids.
Roger Ebert and other critics have pointed out Burstein’s suspiciously amazing luck with her camera, turning up with just the right no-name kid’s phone mic’d when the significant call comes in, trailing along on the vandalism trip to see the Homecoming Queen spray-painting FAG on the windows of a house, and I agree it’s a bit too pat to be believable. I also wanted to see more about the extras, like the kid whose house got painted. A girl e-mails a topless photo of herself to her boyfriend, and within days it circulates throughout the entire school (helped along by the prom queen, a bully nonpareil) and all we see is one scene of her looking off-camera and weeping a few picturesque tears of regret as she reveals her hurt with a surprising lack of affect.
But it all works out in the end. You knew it would. When college-acceptance time rolled around, and the parents of the mean girl hand her a thick envelope from Notre Dame, my heart sank. She pretended she didn’t know what it was until she opened it and read the good news, whereas everybody in the theater was already saying, “She got in!” as soon as they saw it. Everyone who’s applying for college knows the significance of thick and thin envelopes. And so the premier religious college in America welcomes another sinner, one with a thick streak of cruelty and superiority. But her dad is a legacy; was there ever any doubt?
(Best high-school documentary ever: “Hoop Dreams.” Just my $.02.)
Just a bit of bloggage today: The waste of space that is one of the highest-paid sportswriters in America, in which he goes to see the youngest athlete in the Olympic Games, marvels at how young he is, and finally, as usual, makes it All About Mitch. Contrasted with a truly interesting Wall Street Journal piece on “finishing technique” in swimming, which manages to be both informative and interesting.
And finally, a note: Over the last three years, I’ve been privileged to make an occasional virtual trip to my old house in Indiana, thanks to a blog kept by one of the new owners, Melaine Schreiber. I watched as they tackled the projects I lacked energy for — stripping carpet, refinishing floors and woodwork, updating the kitchen, re-tiling the bathroom. And I watched Jay, the baby Melaine brought to the closing, grow into a toddler and then a big boy. I always thought our house had good luck attached to it. When we moved in, there was a bottle of champagne in the fridge, left by the previous owners. I made sure we left a bottle when we moved out. I wanted to keep the karmic thread going, or whatever.
That was an illusion, as luck frequently is. Six months ago persistent fatigue led to a terrifying diagnosis for Melaine — T-cell lymphoma — and she died yesterday. There’s a word for a world that robs 4-year-old boys of their mothers, but I don’t think it’s one I want to use at the moment. Farewell, Melaine: