'American Teen': Archetype Casting

We're stuck in the library in Shermer, Ill.

Mr. Vernon pops in every half-hour to bark at us, set us straight. We're still a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel and a recluse, and we're not allowed to talk ourselves out of it. We glance at the clock. Half past 2008. We've been here for 23 years, since "The Breakfast Club" mashed high school archetypes into its crucible. We're still trying to figure out, first, who we are and, after growing up, who the high-schoolers of today are.

Now comes a movie called "American Teen." Not just a movie. A high-profile documentary, one that had the Sundance Film Festival crowd on its feet, cheering, in January. This is it, we think. This is the film that will sidestep the faux-realness of "Superbad" and "Juno," that will enter and capture the soul of the American high-schooler in the third millennium, that will show us the rawness of our current reality.

So we zip up our backpacks, ready for deliverance from Dick Vernon's library. Instead, we watch the trailer and our hearts sink. Title cards are thrown on the screen between quick shots of student life in Warsaw, Ind.

THE JOCK, at the free-throw line.

THE GEEK, walking an empty hallway.

THE REBEL, painting, in a pink ski hat.

THE PRINCESS, on her bed, under an Abercrombie & Fitch poster.

THE HEARTTHROB, pumping gas, smiling.

Then the trailer, with big white letters on a black background, asks us this question, one word at a time:

WHO

WERE

YOU?

High school archetypes exist because that's reality. Recall the geography of your cafeteria: the continent of cool, the islands of uncool, the cohort of band kids, the stronghold of the football team. From real life we've sketched enduring stereotypes, abetted by the screens we watch for entertainment. James Dean gave us the rebel in 1955. Warren Beatty gave us the jock in 1961 with "Splendor in the Grass." Teen-idol and rock-and-roll films divided high school into hepcats and squares, and "Breakfast Club" filmmaker John Hughes dissected cliques throughout the '80s. These familiar characters have been sculpted by these fictional movies over the past 50 years. They've been deconstructed, reassembled and glorified by "reality" TV of the past 15.

Now they appear again in "American Teen" " first in the marketing, second in the actual film, which follows five subjects through their senior year at Warsaw High School in a northern Indiana town of 12,500. We see a basketball star gunning for a scholarship, a popular queen bee awaiting admittance to Notre Dame, a loner in pursuit of a girlfriend.

There's so much more to us, to the high school experience than these conventions, and yet filmically we're constantly reduced for easier digestion. Shouldn't we expect more from such a powerful and imaginative art form?

Jocks and rebels were nowhere to be seen in 1968's "High School," perhaps cinema's first direct look at the real-life landscape of secondary ed. The documentary is 75 minutes, one for each hour of footage shot in a Philadelphia high school by Frederick Wiseman, who's spent his career filming social institutions in action. "High School" shows routine, not narrative, and from there we plainly see reality. The pressure to conform is rendered on black-and-white film: direct, observant, unobtrustive. There are no asides to the camera and no main characters, but the film comes to a sharp point with a stinging final scene, in which an administrator reads aloud a strangely robotic letter sent by an alumnus stationed in Vietnam.

"I didn't start with any particular theory to prove," recalls Wiseman. "I like the themes to emerge from the experience and not be imposed in advance. ... The film was a response to the experience of making the film. A report on that experience."

Critics championed the unmasking of what was previously viewed as a healthy, untroubled school. "Scene after scene builds to a powerful cumulative effect " not of anger but of immense sadness and futility: this is how we live," wrote the New Republic in 1969. " 'High School' is an essay on emptiness."

After "High School," nostalgia reigned. The '70s were all about "American Graffiti" and "Happy Days." The country wouldn't see another unvarnished shot of contemporary high school until 1983.

Actually, scratch that. The documentary "Seventeen" was completed in '83 but virtually no one saw it. Commissioned by PBS as part of a film series on Muncie, Ind., "Seventeen" triggered explosive controversy by showing exactly what filmmakers Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines witnessed as they lived in the town for more than two years: teen-agers in a working-class part of town, grappling with racial tension and volatile aimlessness, while smoking dope and downing beers. Corporate sponsor Xerox got wind of the content and pressured PBS to exclude it. Forward-thinking critics saw what would become a venerated, blistering example of the direct cinema genre.

"In an atmosphere of teenpix dishonestly cosmetisized and deodorized for audience protection, frank, gutsy 'Seventeen' is a revelation," wrote the Boston Herald.

At the same time, John Hughes was putting high school types into the pressure cooker of detention in Shermer, Ill. In 1985 "The Breakfast Club" immortalized archetypes while trying to dissolve them. These types settled like concrete over the years in TV and movies: "Pretty in Pink" (1986), "Clueless" (1995), "Freaks and Geeks" and "American Pie" (1999), "Mean Girls" (2004). MTV blurred the line between fiction and reality with its discount boutique of programs about high-schoolers, from the jocks of "Two-a-Days" to the princesses of "Laguna Beach."

On TV we are shown high school in quick, digestible, glossy morsels; from movies we are given time-honored narratives that arc gracefully to foregone (but pleasurable) conclusions. "American Teen," in style and content, is a product of this cultural heritage. It is entertaining, but does it belong alongside "High School" and "Seventeen" as a trenchant snapshot of a crucial time and place during young adulthood?

"American Teen" delivers a happy ending: Its subjects struggle under the timeless pressures of high school and emerge unscathed, ready for their bright futures, in a tidy way that recalls fictional teen flicks.

With that in mind, it's fascinating to read this excerpt from the "Seventeen" makers' 25-page response to their film's detractors. This part addresses the pressure they felt to deliver something comforting to PBS:

"Often the editor's sense of what works comes from Hollywood movies and popular literature: he gauges the success of his editing by its adherence to those traditions. Does a real person become a 'type'? Does the flow of reality turn into a 'story' line? The 'type' and the 'story' are so easy to grasp, because we've seen them before, that filmmaker and audience alike are entranced by the editor's results."

Also intriguing: Nanette Burstein, then an aspiring director at NYU Film School, caught a rare screening of "Seventeen" in the early '90s. And it would later inspire her to make "American Teen" a short drive from Muncie in Warsaw.

So a question for the director:

WHO

WERE

YOU?

"I was a little hellion," Burstein says over Caesar salad in Washington, D.C., in May. "I was getting in a lot of trouble, too. I started out very much wanting to fit in and be in the popular crowd, and that didn't work out too well."

It was the John Hughes era, in an affluent enclave of Buffalo, in a private high school known for being preppy and elitist. After being burned by the popular crowd, Burstein went to study in Barcelona wearing fake pearls and khaki pants. She returned with a pink Mohawk.

"I guess I needed to leave my high school to figure out who I was," she explains. "You're starting to figure out who you are, but there's so much pressure not to be that person."

Shortly after completing her debut documentary, 1999's "On the Ropes," she pitched the "American Teen" idea first as a film and then as a series, but couldn't get financing. Filmmaker R.J. Cutler did get financing, and his 14-episode series, "American High," which had the screen time to dwell on, instead of sprint through, its subjects, ran on PBS after being booted by Fox for poor ratings.

"Instead of filming a subject or group of subjects over the course of year and editing away 85 percent of material," says Cutler, "what would it be like if you included lots of material and story lines and built your narrative in self-contained episodes with continuing arcs?"

With her teen project, Burstein wanted an epic character-driven piece, not a dispassionate collection of institutional moments like Wiseman's "High School" or an episodic ensemble piece like "American High." In 2005, she visited 10 high schools in four states and interviewed members of the incoming senior class. She settled on Warsaw High School. She convinced administrators that she was not there to dwell on the sex-drugs-and-alcohol aspect of high school life. She rented a cottage for 10 months and found her characters: a heartthrob, a princess, a jock, a rebel and a geek. All white and all middle- to upper-class.

"I was definitely looking for kids from different social groups who had more archetypal story lines than the archetypes themselves, like wanting to achieve something that everyone could relate to," Burstein says. "Yeah, but it did end up " it is sort of remarkable how much it ended like the archetypes for 'Breakfast Club.' That was not my intention. Not even something I realized until I was editing the film."

"American Teen" is pumped up with a soundtrack drawn from the iPods of its subjects, aided by animation, ornamented by special effects. It's life, italicized.

Advance reviews have been mixed. "A modern day 'Breakfast Club' that will make you stand up and cheer," gushed E! critic Ben Lyons. "Burstein's editorial choices feel driven to deliver familiar story arcs," wrote Sean Axmaker, concurring with several other critics, on the blog GreenCine Daily.

Burstein feels this conclusion misses the complexities in the film. "The point of the movie ultimately is that their friends are labeling them and putting them in this box, and they are so much more complicated than they appear to be," she says. "Rather than try to reinforce the stereotype, it's showing they're much more complicated."

A bidding war erupted at Sundance. Paramount Vantage paid $1 million for distribution rights. The film didn't win the festival's documentary award, but Burstein won the directing prize.

Hannah Bailey, the rebel, comes off totally cool in "American Teen." She is 17 and wants out of Warsaw. She gets her heart broken twice, sinks into depression, skips school for three weeks and decides, after graduation, to head for San Francisco despite her parents' wishes.

Now, at 20, Bailey and her fellow subjects are in Los Angeles for the summer, their internships set up by the studio. The jock is at ESPN, the geek at IGN, the princess at a medical charity and the heartthrob in Tom Cruise's old office at Paramount, according to his blog.

In 1985, the archetypes are brought together by detention. In 2008, they're united by promotional duties. Like driving around in cars decorated with the movie poster.

"It's horrible. It's awful. It's so bad," Bailey, on the phone from L.A., says about the cars (hers is red). "And we all hate it. We have to just laugh at it."

"All we want is to be treated like human beings, not be experimented on like guinea pigs or patronized like bunny rabbits."

- Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer in "Heathers" (1989)

"It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something. For no reason. Just to make things easier for everybody. But when you think about it, I mean, how do you know if it's even you?"

- Claire Danes as Angela Chase in "My So-Called Life," Episode 1 (1994)

"We think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain ... and an athlete ... and a basket case ... a princess ... and a criminal. Does that answer your question?"

- Anthony Michael Hall as Brian Johnson in "The Breakfast Club" (1985)

"Yeah, yeah. We see things as we want to see them. That's the essence of both watching a movie and putting one together. As we see it, Frederick Wiseman saw high school as an institution, filmed its mechanics and edited it into an account of how students resist and conform to it. As we see it, DeMott and Kreines saw high school as a hollow activity in the lives of preoccupied teens, filmed the futility and edited it into a warning. Burstein saw high school as terrain from which to harvest narratives, filmed the landmarks of a year and edited it into a lullaby. As we see it."

The characters in "The Breakfast Club" eventually get out of that library. So, too, have the teens of "American Teen" left their home town. Presumably, they will find out who they really are instead of who we want them to be. As soon as they're done with their summer in Hollywood.

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