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EW critic: 'American Teen' a real Sundance pleasure

At Sundance, Owen Gleiberman digs Nanette Brustein’s documentary of life at an Indiana high school, but finds Mark Pellington’s ”Henry Poole Is Here,” starring Luke Wilson, isn’t all there

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EW critic: ‘American Teen’ a real Sundance pleasure

A few years ago, when everyone was talking about the documentary boom and trying to figure out why it was happening, one factor that was often cited was the rise of reality TV. No one was really pretending that The Apprentice or Flavor of Love or Real World: Krakatoa were ”documentaries,” yet there was no denying that for all their cheesiness and fakery, shows like these helped condition a mass audience into accepting what looked and sounded like nonfiction as entertainment.

It wasn’t, however, until I saw American Teen, a sensationally engrossing and revealing portrait of half a dozen intersecting seniors at an Indiana high school, that I realized the familiar tropes of reality TV have now, perhaps inevitably, begun to invade the realm of ”serious” documentary filmmaking. American Teen has jocks, nerds, rebels, and blonde snub-nosed mean girls, and it’s so full of suspense, romance, and adolescent-angst intrigue that it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to describe it as a more sober, deep-dish version of Laguna Beach. Director Nanette Burstein, a veteran of Sundance (On the Ropes), followed these kids around for 10 months, and she tells their stories in privileged snippets intercut with interviews in which they comment, reality TV-style, on the action we’ve just seen. At moments, you may wonder how Burstein had all her cameras in the right place (she admits that she arranged to film certain phone calls ahead of time). Yet she digs so tellingly into her subjects’ emotional lives, and what she has captured so escapes the consumerist clichés of 21st-century teen culture, that the movie has the feel not of a soap opera but of a richly packed novel.

The jock king, a basketball star whose ability to go to college depends on his getting a scholarship, lives with as much anxiety as the ”loser,” who is actually a good-looking kid who doesn’t believe in himself. The catty class princess has everything you want in a villainess, yet the movie shows you how and why she turned out that way — and when the climax of her college-application process arrives, it is, against all expectation, the most moving moment in the film. Well, except for the one in which the arty rock & roll girl, who is desperate to leave the Midwest and go to film school in California, confronts the mother who can’t let go of her. The teenagers in American Teen are such full, eager, vulnerable human beings that watching the movie makes you gasp, quietly, at what they’re up against: not just the usual popularity contest, but the odds for and against making it in the world. It’s a heady, eye-opening pleasure to see the forces that have shaped them, and the way they’ve shaped themselves.

***

Imagine that Billy Walsh, the suit-dissing hipster prima donna director on Entourage, decided to make a movie that would show his ”sensitive” side — and it played at Sundance, and turned out to be a gooey, ponderous, maudlin debacle. It might look something like Mark Pellington’s Henry Poole Is Here, in which Luke Wilson, playing that mopey-ironic note he plays so…consistently, portrays a depressed dude who says he ”won’t be around” for long. He then discovers that the water stain on his house’s back wall may be the face of Jesus. (Yes, it bleeds tears.) I’ll go with any plot, as long as it doesn’t proceed with this much phony uplift and schmaltzy lugubriousness.