By Sandie Angulo Chen,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Riveting documentary is bound to get kids talking.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
The movie's main take-away for teens is that high school can be a difficult time for everyone -- and that everyone will have both highs and lows to deal with; how you handle each may not be perfect, but if you believe in yourself, you can make it through. The teens' relatability makes their experiences the kind that will really resonate with other kids.
Positive Role Models
A high-school student is fiercely independent and paves her own way through senior year, dealing with inconsistent messages from her parents. A guy gives in to peer pressure and breaks up with someone who's outside his social circle. A rich popular girl is predictably mean and manipulative (including instigating the aforementioned incident of cyberbullying involving sending around topless photos of a "friend") but has family issues to deal with at home. A lonely guy seeks romance; some girls aren't particularly sympathetic or nice to him.
Violence & Scariness
No violence, but a couple of disturbing scenes include the discussion of a suicide and of Hannah's post-break-up depression.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Teens kiss and hold hands. One teenager discusses "doing it," while another sends a boy a topless photo of herself that's subsequently emailed around the school. Very drunk college-aged women kiss each other and a high-schooler.
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Teenagers regularly use all of the usual curse words -- "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," "ass," etc. -- throughout the movie.
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Products & Purchases
Brands aren't "product placement," since this is a documentary, but they're definitely visible: Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Legend of Zelda, Mercedes, Ford, Apple iPods, etc.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Teens are shown drinking heavily and smoking cigarettes. One boy's older brother makes a point of getting the younger man drunk when he comes to visit.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that American Teen is an eye-opening documentary that follows real high-school seniors from the small town of Warsaw, Ind., and doesn't flinch from showing them drinking, swearing, smoking, hooking up, and talking about sex. They also worry about their romantic relationships, peer pressure, college applications, scholarships, and grades. There's plenty of manipulative behavior and tons of emotional ups and downs, all of which teens are likely to recognize and identify with -- and parents may find themselves panicking about.
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What's the Story?
Filmmaker Nanette Burstein, who won the documentary director award for AMERICAN TEEN at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, has made what some critics have dubbed the "real" Breakfast Club. The comparisons are obvious, since the film follows five seniors from Warsaw, Ind. (population: 13,000), who fall into the same categories as in the Brat Pack classic: there's a princess (Megan), a jock (Colin), a rebel/misfit (Hannah), a geek (Jake), and a heartthrob (Mitch). Like all teens, each has to navigate the tumultuous ride that is the year before college, and Burstein chronicles their lives with humor and depth.
Is It Any Good?
It's impossible to know how much influence the camera had on how the Warsaw teens acted, but the situations ring true, sometimes heartbreakingly so. Although Burstein gives each of her chosen few ample screen time, independent spirit Hannah Bailey is clearly favored. The daughter of a manic depressive, Hannah isn't popular, but she's far from a geek. She plays in a band, aspires to be a director, wears retro chic clothes and just glows, even when she sobs, on the screen. Watching as she endures two break ups (one via text message!) in the course of a year, it's no surprise why her story is the most interesting and well-rounded.
All of the other students also have fascinating stories to tell. Colin's father, an Elvis impersonator, can't afford college tuition, so if Colin can't secure a basketball scholarship, the Army is his only option. Varsity hottie Mitch loves hanging out with Hannah, but he can't seem to deal with her when he's around his snooty popular friends. Megan, the richest girl in town, is a stereotypical "Mean Girl," but the queen bee also has overwhelming pressure to succeed and a sad family history to overcome. Jake is so introverted that his only two concerns are playing video games and finding a kindred spirit to date. With only 101 minutes to depict a year's worth of tales, Burstein tends to dwell on the tragedies and triumphs -- from personal betrayals to college acceptances -- but that's completely understandable and makes for an entertaining and bittersweet account of life for contemporary teens.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about how the featured students personify the stereotypes of high school life. Do teens really fall into clear categories like "geek," "misfit," "princess," etc.?
Teens: How much do you relate to what's shown in the movie? Which of the kids in the movie do you think you're most like?
Parents and kids may also want to discuss some of the behavior shown in the movie. Is cyberbulling as prevalent as the film portrays? What are the consequences? Also, what are the real-life consequences of underage drinking? And are high-school relationships so easily affected by peer pressure?
- In theaters: July 24, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: December 21, 2008
- Cast: Colin Clemens, Hannah Bailey, Megan Krizmanich
- Director: Nanette Burstein
- Studio: Paramount Vantage
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: High School
- Run time: 101 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: some strong language, sexual material, some drinking and brief smoking -- all involving teens.
- Last updated: February 27, 2023
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