I walked out of "American Teen" feeling more connected to this film than I had to any in a very long time, but it took me a few days to place a finger on why.
First, I thought maybe it was because the film was mind-blowingly brilliant. Not quite. I mean it was good, but not good enough to warrant such adjectives.
Next, I assumed it might have been some larger concept articulated within the film that stirred some feelings I had left hidden away for years. But that didn't seem to be it either. Sure, a documentary about the end of high school and the angst that goes with it, filmed in the Midwest no less, certainly awoke some old hopes and fears. But it didn't uncover anything revolutionary.
My connection was on a much more simplistic level than that. As several of the posters for the film (which featured the characters of the film inserted into the famous cover of "The Breakfast Club") showed, Nanette Burstein carefully and cleverly used the high school films of yesteryear to fill in much of the backstory of "American Teen"'s teens. In doing so, she created five main characters who essentially fell into place as one of several high school archetypes. In this case: the jock, the band nerd, the queen bee, the charming below-the-radar artistic girl who wears silly hats and the male athlete with a dorky silly inside (sort of).
Sure, Burstein does a stellar job of crafting characters. They begin as relatable archetypes and grow into complex characters. And the film does itself a few favors before it even begins. One, it is a documentary. This may seem obvious, but it's still relevant. As charming as "Can't Hardly Wait" was, we may have a hard time relating to certain points because, say, girls like Jennifer Love Hewitt - smokin' hot and cool to boot - didn't go to our school. The same could be said for the lack of paddling at my school in relation to "Dazed and Confused." But with a documentary we don't have the choice of whether or not to make this leap. After all, as Mark Twain said, fiction has to make sense. Truth doesn't. But the documentary aspect of "American Teen" lets Burstein create these characters whose actions seem as extreme as over-the-top movie characters' while remaining grounded in the simple fact that these experiences were real.
The other favor the movie did itself was choosing a small Indiana town as its setting. This point is potentially more debatable, but in my opinion the small-town location makes a distinct separation from the surge of reality television shows that focus on kids around the same age who have glamorous lifestyles and chic fashion senses. But more important than this, it made Burstein's eventual central character, Hannah Bailey, shine through the film. The "small-town girl with big city dreams" plotline has obviously been covered to death since the early days of cinema, but her earnest charm and quiet rebelliousness provide the film with its emotional backbone and give the audience a character to root for in a film full of flawed teenagers.
There were moments where other characters' life scenarios forced honest moments of emotional depth, namely Colin's struggle between a basketball scholarship and the military. But the genuine vulnerability Hannah showed with both failed relationships and the fear of living in small-town Indiana forever and ending up like everyone else in her town seemed to encapsulate the overall spirit of the film and the teenage angst it was attempting to capture more effectively than any narrator could have.