Growing up in the 1980s, Nanette Burstein bore witness to a new wave of teen comedies that made light of adolescent angst without trivializing it, movies that seemed to speak the language of their audience in honest, sympathetic terms.
Yet as much as she could appreciate the storytelling of directors such as Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, whose sometimes-tortured high-school experiences informed two of the era’s most iconic films — “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Breakfast Club” — Burstein envisioned something even more authentic.
“I grew up watching those films, and they had a profound effect on me,” says Burstein, 38, whose own high-school years in Buffalo, N.Y., were clouded by uncertainty about her future and the constant struggle to forge an identity without yielding to pressure from her peers and parents.
“I could relate to the portrayal of adolescence and all its challenges. For the last 15 years, I have wanted to explore those same themes in a nonfiction film, but with all the complexities and depth of real people that are often lacking in fictional movies.”
For her new documentary “American Teen,” which follows a tumultuous year in the lives of five Indiana seniors preparing for a future outside of the increasingly confining world of Warsaw Community High, Burstein created a Breakfast Club of her own, assembling a cast of real-life students who seem to invite all the typical labels: The Jock, the Rebel, the Princess, the Heartthrob and the Geek.
To Burstein, who determined that her film should be set in a small, single-school town where “it’s that much harder for kids to escape the social structure,” the biggest challenge in finding the reality behind those archetypes lay in overcoming the wariness of her subjects: self-described nerd Jake Tusing; artsy outsider Hannah Bailey, who dreams of escaping to San Francisco; basketball star Colin Clemens; popularity queen Megan Krizmanich; and boyishly handsome Mitch Reinholt who, during one of the film’s most uncomfortable moments, breaks off a burgeoning romance via text-message.
“Teenagers are very secretive, because most adults disapprove of their lifestyles,” says Burstein, who persuaded her cast never to view her as an authority figure.
“They constantly create drama for themselves, so performing for the camera wasn’t an issue. The real issue was getting them to be natural, to trust me. It took a couple months, but we developed strong relationships and they learned to believe in what I was trying to do. There were times when certain people didn’t feel like being filmed, and I didn’t want to ever expose them in damaging ways. But I always wanted to show their complicatedness and humanity.”