American Teen: Documenting High School
American Teen arrived from Netflix last week, and I had the chance to watch the documentary I first heard about via Ypulse last summer. The film was a 2008 Sundance Film Festival favorite, and it depicts the senior year experience of five high school students living in Warsaw, Indiana. The students are articulate, open and come across well on camera. I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated and I thought it was well done and nicely edited. (It felt very much like a movie with an engaging story line, particularly compared to other attempts to document the high school experience like WE’s High School Confidential that I followed last year). The audience gets a really authentic look at Hannah Bailey’s (the main character of sorts) senior year experience; of all the students featured, she’s the one I’d want to be friends with. Without spoiling anything, I even found myself commiserating the woes of her love life. You can check out the trailer here.
My biggest critique of the documentary is that it’s a very insular look at teen life through the filter of a specific demographic: white, middle-class. The middle class range is broad; one student borders on upper class, another probably on lower, but demographically speaking, it’s a pretty homogenous group. I’m sure this is also a byproduct of the filming location. Warsaw, Indiana is very white, middle class, so American Teen is probably a strong representation of the teen experience in Warsaw, but not necessarily representative of high school life everywhere. Having grown up in then worked in communities with significant Hispanic and African-American populations, I do think there are meaningful regional and cultural variations on the high school experience.
Perhaps the most important takeaway for audiences not intimately familiar with the tween/teen crowd is that these young people are working through significant challenges and coping with tremendous pressure despite their young age. The film reinforced for me that growing kids will benefit from OneSeventeen Media’s tools in navigating their complicated lives.