American Teen (documentary)

“American Teen” is a refreshing palate-cleanser after the recent spate of documentaries about war and terrorism. It is also, to my everlasting joy, just as enthralling as any of those more “serious” docs, and more entertaining, funny, and hopeful than almost any fictional film I’ve seen this year.

Where many docs benefit from subject matter that is automatically compelling because of its inherent novelty or tragedy, “American Teen” earns our attention the hard way by focusing on a group of Midwestern kids who are … normal. It’s up to director Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) to find the stories in these kids’ everyday lives and to assemble the footage into something worth watching. She succeeds at that, and then goes further, to where the film isn’t just fun but deeply moving, too.

Burstein’s crew followed a handful of high school students in Warsaw, Ind., over the course of their senior year, from September right up to graduation. The characters emerge as fully formed as figures in a novel: Megan is the queen bee, a spoiled princess, a gifted athlete, a student council representative, and a complete bitch. Colin is the basketball star, the big man on campus, yet genuinely nice and beloved by everyone. Jake is the band geek, skinny, occasionally plagued by acne, realistic (“I do love the ladies, but the ladies do not love me”) but optimistic about his prospects this year. And Hannah is the rebel who marches to her own beat, the girl who — oh, let’s make this easy. She’s Juno.

These four central characters know each other but don’t travel in the same circles, and their stories overlap only tangentially, as when Colin’s teammate Mitch starts dating one of the girls. For the most part, we’re treated to the kids’ separate arcs, and Burstein’s brilliant editing (assisted by co-editors Tom Haneke and Mary Manhardt) draws out the natural drama of their lives. Characters are introduced at strategic junctures, just as a novelist would do. Minor story threads are left dangling in the background while the more important stories are resolved. The teens evolve and grow like well-written fictional characters, yet remain flawed and imperfect like real people. The film combines the best aspects of documentary realism (it’s all true!) and Hollywood magic (they all lived happily ever after!).

The film’s brilliance lies in the fact that no matter how long it’s been since you were in high school, you’ll recognize and identify with Megan, Colin, Jake, Hannah, and all the supporting characters who weave in and out of their lives. This school was chosen for its normalcy, and that normalcy is what draws us in. The kids, like all teens, are hormonal, cruel, enthusiastic, and melodramatic — and boy, do we ever get caught up in it.

You root for Colin, the basketball hero who MUST get a scholarship because his doting dad — an Elvis impersonator and former Warsaw basketball hero himself — can’t afford to pay for college. Your heart breaks as Jake and Hannah struggle through their separate romances, with all their pitfalls and pettiness and sorrow. You smile with recognition at how Megan is clearly in love with her platonic best friend Geoff, and marvel at how she can be so mean and spiteful — and at how she can genuinely fail to see why her friends are so mad at her all the time.

It would be embarrassing to admit being so emotionally involved with these stories if they were part of a trashy teen-based reality show like “The Hills” or “Laguna Beach.” But “American Teen,” while superficially similar to those shows, is far more respectable. As a documentary, it’s extraordinarily well produced, directed, and edited. It’s also fantastically entertaining, dramatic, and even uplifting, a perfect encapsulation of what it is to be an American teen. Its optimistic final moments will leave you smiling, not just at having seen a great movie, but at having warmly revisited the wonderful world of high school.

A (1 hr., 35 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, two F-words, some sexual references.)