The real 'American Teen' -- A new documentary follows the lives of five Indiana high school seniors
You don’t know Mitch Reinholt and Megan Krizmanich — but you did in high school. Maybe Mitch was the boy you secretly loved. He’s a six-foot-four, blue-eyed, broad-shouldered calendar guy with a Colgate smile and manners that’d make a mother proud. Megan would definitely be the queen bee: a popular, perfectly coiffed blonde, with pouty lips, a sweet button nose, and, at times, a withering glare. It’s a June afternoon in their hometown of Warsaw, Ind. The streets are lined with drive-thru restaurants and quaint churches. The Dairy Queen has just been remodeled, which qualifies as an event. Mitch and Megan are driving around, enjoying their last few days of anonymity.
”Ooh, can we pleeeaasse stop at Courthouse Coffee?”
”Whatever you want, Princess,” Mitch says.
”All right, Heartthrob,” Megan snorts.
Mitch pulls up to a stoplight and sighs. ”I’m sick of that already,” he says.
He’d better get used to it. Mitch, Megan, and three other Warsaw kids are having a surreal run-in with fame, thanks to Nanette Burstein’s vivid, funny, and heartbreakingly earnest high school documentary, American Teen, which opened in New York and Los Angeles last Friday and will go wider throughout August. The movie is an antidote to stagy, highly stylized reality shows like The Hills and Laguna Beach. It follows five Warsaw Community High School students from the first day of senior-year classes to the turning of their tassels, capturing a formative year through the eyes of classic archetypes: the Jock, the Rebel, the Geek, the Princess, and the Heartthrob. ”I grew up watching John Hughes movies, and the inspiration I had for this movie was to find these fictional teen narratives in real life,” says Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture). ”I felt that in recent years I hadn’t seen the kind of complex teen-fiction films that I grew up on. And I thought a documentary would be even more complicated.”
Because there’s such a glut of reality on TV — and because it’s all so much more salacious than American Teen cares to be — Burstein’s movie has been a challenge to market. ”Before I saw the movie, I thought even if it’s done well, I’m not sure you can convince people that this isn’t something you can see from the comfort of your home,” says Megan Colligan, Paramount Vantage’s executive VP of marketing. But what American Teen lacks in voyeuristic high jinks, it makes up for in authenticity. The tricky part is that now the real kids have to help sell the movie so it can make some real money. (It debuted last weekend to a modest $9,118 per-screen average.) The studio set Mitch, Megan, and their classmates up in Los Angeles for the summer, eager to get them famous before the movie opened. It also hooked up each of them with internships one day a week, with folks as cool and varied as the Dodgers and Judd Apatow. Still, while today the cast members are walking red carpets, their 15 minutes won’t last long, and soon they’ll be plunked back down into normal life. Some will be disoriented. Some may be grateful.
Back in spring 2005, Burstein scored a little development money from A&E and set out to find an economically diverse Midwestern town with only one high school. ”It’s much more of a social pressure cooker that way,” she says. Calls were put out to hundreds of schools, and 10 agreed to participate. Burstein interviewed the incoming seniors at every one. ”I was scared,” she says. ”’What if I don’t find interesting kids? What if this is a horrible mistake?”’ Her fears evaporated at Warsaw, where princesses, jocks, and geeks all volunteered to audition. ”At a lot of schools, the underdogs didn’t show up,” she says. The Warsaw kids all had their reasons. Hannah Bailey, the Rebel, wanted to be a filmmaker. Jake Tusing, the Geek, was bored. Colin Clemens, the Jock, was intrigued by being in front of the camera. Mitch just wanted a video yearbook. ”I never thought it would be in theaters or anything,” he says. ”I just thought it would be cool to kinda, like, look back and say, ‘Here’s my senior year.”’
Strangely, it was Megan who was the most reluctant, despite being student council vice president, leader of the mean girls, and an admitted Hills fan. ”I wanted to enjoy my senior year,” she says. ”I didn’t want any interruptions.” But then Burstein started filming at school, and Megan couldn’t quite resist the lure of the spotlight. ”The camera started following around Colin and the others, and I thought, Wow, this might be kind of cool.”
The parents? All on board. One recent day in Warsaw, Colin’s mom and dad, Dana and Gordon Clemens, sit in their living room with an American Teen poster framed on the wall and magazines with articles about the project arrayed proudly on the coffee table. Gordon’s gig as an Elvis impersonator is on grand display in the movie, and despite wishing he had dropped 30 pounds before filming began, he couldn’t be happier with Burstein’s work. ”Never in our wildest dreams did we expect this kind of attention,” he says. ”We had hoped for a TV movie, maybe on A&E. Boy, did they put it together well.”
They certainly did. American Teen captures real kids, undergoing real self-doubt and real crises at home. These days, it’s no surprise that teens or twentysomethings are willing to live on camera. ”This is the media generation, so while that has its pros and cons, you do get more of an interest level from them,” says Burstein. But one of the triumphs of American Teen is that the kids don’t seem to be crassly gaming the system. They lay themselves open in a way that’s unusual for their generation — which, if you were to judge solely from reality TV, seems to have been born jaded and wearing bikinis. Along with Megan and Mitch, the movie follows Jake, who has a face full of acne and a regrettable bowl haircut. Jake is on a quest for a girlfriend: He woos a transfer student the instant she arrives in Warsaw, hoping she’ll go on a date with him before anyone tells her his place in the social strata. It also tracks Colin, who’s six-foot-five, with an athlete’s physique and a chin like Jay Leno’s. Either he snags a basketball scholarship to pay for college or his dad’s going to pack him off to the Army. Try thinking about that on the free-throw line.
And then there’s Hannah, the Rebel. She steals the movie. There, we said it. Hannah’s a funny, fresh-faced brunette who plays guitar in a band and wants to be a filmmaker. She’s got a tricky home life but manages to be exuberant in the face of just about everything — until someone breaks her heart. After a devastating spinout, Hannah rebounds and has a showdown with her parents over her radical decision to move to San Francisco after high school. ”I was just doing what I had to do at the time, I didn’t really think I was being brave,” Hannah says, sitting in her grandma’s cluttered Warsaw house, eating applesauce out of the little plastic cups usually reserved for preschoolers. ”But I look back on that and I think, Man, I had some b—s.”
American Teen looks as deep into Princess Megan’s heart as it does into Rebel Hannah’s — and what it finds is complicated, to say the least. During the course of the movie, Megan humiliates a female friend in front of all of Warsaw High just because. But the moment you decide she’s irredeemable, she begins to open up and tell a devastating story of her own. Burstein had been hesitant about showing Megan the film. There’s no way around the fact that she is American Teen‘s villain. ”Megan’s story is the most intense, and I wasn’t sure how she would respond,” says the director. Well? Sitting on a couch in her parents’ sunroom one afternoon, Megan is surprisingly thoughtful: ”I loved it. I really did. I know that there are definitely cruel parts — that I come across as mean. But through the movie you see me transform. That’s a main goal of the movie. It’s such an awkward time in our lives and we’re supposed to be developing who we are, but at the same time we have no clue who we are.”
This past January, the American Teen kids arrived at Sundance, in Park City, Utah. By now, they were all in college. They had seen the finished film, but never with a real audience. ”When we watched it with strangers, they were just sitting there, not laughing at the points where I thought they would,” Megan says. ”And they were clapping at the parts where I get into trouble. People were harsh.” Audiences do tend to cheer when Megan gets her comeuppance. And a boo or two is typically unleashed when she gets good news late in the movie. ”For her sake, I wish it was a little bit lighter on her,” says Mitch. ”But that makes the movie. The drama.”
After passing on a bid from Fox Searchlight, Burstein sold American Teen to Paramount Vantage for slightly less than $1 million (A&E IndieFilms is credited as a producer on the film). Megan, Mitch, Hannah, Jake, and Colin hobnobbed with the likes of Josh Hartnett and Paul Giamatti. They left Park City as the darlings of the festival — and started down a road of promotion that has yet to end. Without the stars maintaining their openness and vulnerability, after all, Vantage has nothing to sell. So in return for swag like free handheld video cameras and the thrill of walking those red carpets, the gang has been doing question-and-answer sessions after screenings, blogging on Facebook, CosmoGIRL!, the Los Angeles Times, and so on. ”The thing this movie offers is a really unique way to market it,” says Vantage’s Colligan. ”You watch these characters and fall in love with them — and then you can go to Facebook, see what they did that day, ask them questions, and even go see them — a whole lot easier than you could see Molly Ringwald after watching — Sixteen Candles.”
On top of promotional duties, each cast member has his or her internship, which the studio hopes will keep them from going rogue inside Los Angeles’ Oakwood Apartments, best known for housing aspiring Disney starlets. So Mitch and Colin hang with the Dodgers. Hannah’s getting ready to be an assistant in Judd Apatow’s production company for the month of August. Megan, now a premed student, is working at the nonprofit children’s charity CoachArt, for kids with life-threatening illnesses. And Jake, an emissary of the geeks who’s blogged for gaming website IGN, has just returned from Comic-Con. ”I keep telling them to think of L.A. as a summer abroad,” says Burstein. ”You are going to have a great experience. I just hope it doesn’t become too seductive.”
Megan’s no-nonsense dad, Thomas Krizmanich, doesn’t put as fine a point on it: ”Any 20-year-old would love to have the opportunity to go to Los Angeles and have all this glamour for a short time. This is her 15 minutes, so she can run with it. But when this summer is over, she needs to get back to what she’s doing for the rest of her life. She’s not going to be an actress.”
Colin, however, does have dreams of acting, and while in L.A. wants to ”at least try.” Mitch was even promised a part — and it’s already melted away like Park City’s ice caps.
Three weeks into their Tinseltown summer, all five American teens are cooling their heels outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art while an audience watches yet another screening. (The movie previewed some 300 times before it opened on July 25.) No one’s in a particularly great mood. Megan’s surly because of the traffic in L.A. and because she got her wires crossed with her handlers. (”There was a lot of miscommunication,” she hisses.) Erstwhile geek Jake, who sports a new hairdo and a clean complexion, napped yesterday, then couldn’t get to sleep last night and is now resting his head on a table outside. Hannah? She’s been bummed out by some of Vantage’s lamer marketing schemes. For instance, all the cast members are driving cars wrapped conspicuously with the American Teen posters. ”It’s shameful, really,” she says. ”I can’t drive with my windows open any longer because of the whistles and yells. It’s so embarrassing.”
The embarrassment will probably be worth it — for the cast and for audiences, many of whom are connecting intensely with the movie. After the screening at the museum, actress Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) makes her way through a throng of teenagers to talk to Hannah, who’s now a budding filmmaker at State University of New York’s Purchase College. ”I asked Hannah if she’d put me in all her movies,” Howard says. ”I must have freaked her out.”
Later, over Facebook, Hannah confirms her latest brush with stardom. She doesn’t sound like a rebel anymore, but, like all her former classmates, just a cool person in the making. ”Bryce was a total sweetheart, and I had no idea who she was,” Hannah says. ”Insane. I ran away from her because I had to pee so bad.”
Meet the Seniors
Five students from Indiana’s Warsaw High shared their lives, zits and all, with cameras.
On the court or in the hallways, Warsaw’s star basketball player is a high school hero. But his laid-back facade cracks under pressure from his parents (including his Elvis impersonator dad) to score a college scholarship.
When she’s not busy trashing a friend’s reputation or TP-ing an enemy’s house, this teen queen loads her résumé with school activities in the hopes of following her family’s footsteps to the University of Notre Dame.
A videogame whiz with problem skin and a monotone voice, he also happens to be a hopeless romantic who isn’t willing to let a low spot on the social ladder get in the way of his quest to find true love — or at least a date.
She’s in a band. She paints. She’s a liberal in a conservative town. While this free spirit has no qualms about being herself, she struggles with crippling anxiety and dreams of escaping Warsaw to start a new life in California.
Colin’s teammate has movie-star good looks and a goofy sense of humor, but the teen dream gets a serious reality check when his budding romance with Hannah creates friction with his cool-clique friends.