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Teenage Wasteland

Two new documentaries show teenage life through the filmmaker's lens.

12:00 AM, Aug 1, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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THE NEW DOCUMENTARY, American Teen, has been sold to audiences as a real life version of The Breakfast Club. In that John Hughes classic, five high school students gather for Saturday detention. Locked together in a library, the teenagers represent the archetypes seen in every high school hallway: the princess, the athlete, the brain, the criminal, the basket case. Over the course of their punishment the quintet evolve past the stereotypes and get to know each other as people. Moral progress achieved, credits roll.

Real life, of course, is far messier, far harder to change, and full of people you can't bring yourself to like. That seems to be the lesson of American Teen, an entertaining if not especially enlightening look at the senior year of high school in a small Midwestern town. Hannah Bailey is the freak, Mitch Reinholdt and Colin Clemens compete to fill the role of jock, Megan Krizmanich is the spoiled princess, and Jake Tusing is the resident nerd.

At times, it tries too hard to be entertaining. Spliced between scenes of high school drama and domestic troubles are animated sequences depicting the students as they wish to see themselves. Jake imagines himself as a video game character in the mold of Legend of Zelda's Link. Hannah sees herself as a doll trapped in a basement while battling post-breakup depression. This might be an effective way of keeping the audience's attention-not the easiest task for a documentary whose primary audience is teenage girls-but the technique feels overly stylized and untrue to the genre.

Additionally, American Teen spends so much time crafting storylines for its heroes that some of the drama feels forced. Often the camera will resting on a teenager lying on a couch when the phone rings or a text message is received; magically, the message falls directly into the filmmaker's narrative. This is a technique that MTV's vapid The Hills is famous for: That, and doing a few takes to make sure the scene comes off perfectly. These Hills-like qualities often left me wondering just how much of what was going on in American Teen was real.

Taking an entirely different tack is the HBO documentary, Hard Times at Douglass High. Shot in a style closer to cinema verité, this documentary gives us a year in the life of Frederick Douglass High School, a failing school in a decaying suburb of Baltimore. Though intended as a screed against President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, Hard Times doesn't shy away from showing the school's real problems: the disintegration of the community surrounding it.

It's difficult to blame George W. Bush and standardized tests for the total apathy of the community at large revealed here. Consider the ethos of one ninth-grade student, interviewed by the camera as he wanders the halls:

"This is what we do. Just walkin' the halls all day, baby. F-k class, that s-t's for clowns man. [Laughter from his friends] We don't go to class 'round here. Man, f-k academics. That ain't me, dawg. Academics, we gonna leave that to them nerd-ass mahf-kers. We gon' keep s-t straight hood up in here."

I'm not sure how this scholar's academic career has been blighted by No Child Left Behind. This is a student whose home life has failed; the value of education has not been instilled into him. Instead of blaming the Bush administration for the problems seen at Douglass High School, the filmmaker might have focused more closely on the homes these students inhabit. At one point, a girl casually mentions that her mother and father are dead, and that she doesn't know anyone whose mother and father are still living together. This is a significant problem, one that obviously affects school performance, and has nothing to do with multiple choice tests.

In the end, Hard Times is a more realistic look at life in high school than American Teen, and a far more interesting one. American Teen shows us nothing we haven't seen before: High school's no fun for some people, some fun for other people, and stressful and unpleasant for all involved. At least Hard Times at Douglass High tries to show audiences a world we don't know, even if it skirts around the school's (and students') real problems.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.