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:
brian stouder said on August 12, 2008 at 10:42 am
Something about the English Girl in Indiana (Melaine’s) website immediately appealed to me, ever since I discovered it some years ago (either thanks to this website, or one of her colleague’s website, who is a friend…or even FWOb, which also links there).
Her blog’s eclectic subject matter, lively humor, and, more recently, her indomitable spirit always struck me as simply irresistible.
And, when I learned that she was a Formula One aficionado, it was clear (from what little I could see) that this was a person who would have been a friend, if I’d ever been fortunate enough to have met her.
And indeed, the symbol she always displayed on her website was a red suitcase; signalling that she was always ready to pick up and head to another interesting destination.
Farewell, English Girl in Heaven.
Lex said on August 12, 2008 at 11:14 am
I recently interviewed a woman with terminal lung cancer (she never smoked) and three daughters younger than 6. I got all the info. I let her have her say about the need for more funding for lung-cancer research (relative to # of deaths it causes, it’s underfunded). And I went back and wrote my story.
And then I went out to my car, thought about my kids, and wept.
Gasman said on August 12, 2008 at 11:15 am
As I was a corn fed Hoosier from my birth until I graduated from IPFW back in 1985, I have a certain attachment to Northeast IN. It can be a frustratingly parochial backwater, politically, culinarily, and artistically. It’s folks like Mélaine that help shed a bit of cultural sunshine into a place that too often seems stuck in a revered but nonexistent past. As I grimly note that she was more than decade younger than I am, my own mortality becomes a very present danger.
I also am aware of the incredible vacuum that has engulfed Mélaine’s family and friends on both sides of The Pond. Our thoughts and prayers are with you all, especially young Jay. On this, her final journey, Mélaine will be traveling light; she left the red suitcase behind. Bon voyage, mon amie.
Mark Brunswick said on August 12, 2008 at 12:07 pm
Yeah, I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you on the best high school documentary ever made.
It would have to be, ummm, the appropriately named “High School,” by Frederick Wiseman. It is a timeless yet timely examination of how an institution imposes its values on the people caught up in it.
Dexter said on August 12, 2008 at 2:04 pm
I won’t watch the movie until IFC or HBO shows it; I have watched a few episodes of “Nimrod Nation” on TV, about Watersmeet High School in Michigan. It’s a worthwhile project, I’d say.
Again, I’ll plug what I believe is the very best high school book ever written, and that is “Maggie Cassidy” by Jack Kerouac, the life of a Lowell, Massachusetts schoolboy set in 1938. It stands the test of time as superb literature.
HERE’S THE AMAZON LINK
coozledad said on August 12, 2008 at 3:53 pm
I try not to think about High School too much. It reminds me of what Paul Theroux said about growing up in a large family- something about it being like a basket of crabs. I’d also like to think of it as a testing ground to see how much you can take before you’re drawn into the abject nastiness yourself.
I was fortunate enough not to be around for any of the trains, and too uncertain of myself to get directly into the hazing rituals, but every time I see an obit for one of the poor kids they put through the ringer, it just breaks me up. I went all the way through school with some of them- and one especially forlorn kid stands out. She had a name that would have been more appropriate to the turn of the century (Daisy). Her father abused her sexually at home and the kids just walked all over her for not dressing to standard. She died homeless, huffing spray paint in a parking lot.
I’m told adults are a little more involved now.
joodyb said on August 12, 2008 at 5:14 pm
what lex said. devastating. i’m so so sorry. what a sh1t summer. needing a break from the cycle of life.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on August 12, 2008 at 5:35 pm
Ditto Wiseman. Stark, riveting, often ending badly (like much of life). He’s got about a dozen out, all worth watching if you can stand it.
As for the girl “as she reveals her hurt with a surprising lack of affect,” that’s what teens do with fearsome regularity in my day job, where our strained and dated high school system teaches detachment and stratification and alienation much better than we deliver math or science. To the degree that it ain’t much surprising anymore.
Grace and peace to all Melaine’s family, and our sorrow alongside you. I’d only glanced at the blog occasionally, but still feel a sense of loss.
Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on August 12, 2008 at 6:00 pm
50 best hs movies, from EW.
Scout said on August 12, 2008 at 7:31 pm
Thank you for sharing the Melaine story with us, Nancy. I am deeply affected by what I just read. My love goes out to her survivors.
Dorothy said on August 13, 2008 at 9:55 am
I read a lot of Melaine’s blog yesterday evening and felt overwhelming sadness for her and her family. I hope they are finding comfort with friends this week.
On the up side, our family member (hubby’s side) who has been fighting testicular cancer since January is going home finally today. He’s had numerous complications, spent about 2 months at a rehab place where they almost ruined his feet, but he’s healing and will be walking eventually. He’s 33.
nancy said on August 13, 2008 at 10:00 am
How does testicular cancer affect your feet?
Dorothy said on August 13, 2008 at 11:30 am
His very large tumor was actually inside his stomach, not in the testicles. It grew up and in internally and affected his vena cava as well. He withstood 22 hours of surgery in January. He had a massive buildup of fluid in his legs that needed to have drains put in, and as a result was bedfast during the recovery. After the tumor was removed he went through chemo, and he just had problem on top of problem, including kidneys that wouldn’t work. He was on dialysis for months but eventually the kidneys began to function again.
He was unable to walk due to the legs being messed up so much from the drains. When he transferred to the rehab hospital in May infections set in in his legs and feet. The docs at the rehab hospital let it go too long and hence the feet problems. Latest email said that he can take as many as 4 steps but then has to rest. Which is a far cry from them telling him about a month ago that he might never walk.