It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"American Teen" observes a year in the life of four high school seniors in Warsaw, Ind. It is presented as a documentary, and indeed these students, their friends and families are all real people, and these are their stories. But many scenes seem suspiciously staged. Why would Megan, the "most popular" girl in school, allow herself to be photographed spreading toilet paper on a lawn and spray-painting "FAG" on the house window of a classmate? Is she really that unaware? She's the subject of disciplinary action in the film; why didn't she tell school officials that she only did it for the movie?
Many questions like that occur while you're watching "American Teen," but once you make allowance for the factor of directorial guidance, the movie works effectively as what it wants to be: a look at these lives, in this town ("mostly middle-class, white and Christian"), at this time.
The director is Nanette Burstein, whose credits include "On the Ropes" and "The Kid Stays in the Picture." She spent a year in Warsaw, reportedly shot 1,000 hours of footage, and focused on four students who represent segments of the high school population.
Megan Krizmanich is pretty, on the school council, a surgeon's daughter, "popular" but sometimes considered a bitch. She dreams of going to Notre Dame, as her father, a brother and a sister did. She seems supremely self-confident until late in the film, when we learn about a family tragedy that her mother blames for her "buried anger."