And once again, we learn that nothing good comes out of Sundance.

The problem with American Teen in a nutshell: as the end credits rolled, I scoured them for whatever hint would give the game away, that this was actually a fictional story filmed to look exactly like a documentary about high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana. No such hint ever came, and the horrible truth is that this is, despite its tremendously convenient narrative arc, a non-fiction film, in roughly the same sense that MTV's The Hills is "non-fiction".

Filmed over the course of ten months, from August, 2005 to May, 2006, American Teen is Nanette Burstein's account of the final year of high school for four young people: Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich and Jake Tusing. Midway through, there's a half-hearted attempt to make it five, with Mitch Reinholdt, but four leads was already two more than Burstein was particularly keen on following. Colin and Megan aren't nearly as present in the film as the other two, and it's not hard to see why: Jake is an introverted geek and Hannah wants to go to film school, which doubtlessly made them more sympathetic in the director's eyes (I am only assuming that Burstein has sympathy for introverted geeks, but she is a professional documentary filmmaker, so it's a reasonably safe assumption).

Complaining that the film doesn't focus on enough characters is certainly missing the forest for the trees, though, since the much bigger problem is that those character it does focus on are proudly presented as raw stereotypes: Hannah is the Misfit, Colin is the Jock, Megan is the Popular Bitch, Jake is the Geek, Mitch is the Hunkier, More Popular Jock. It's this terrifying reduction of living human beings to stock characters that makes American Teen feel so powerfully like a faked movie even more than its eminently predictable plot arcs; in fact it makes it feel more than a bit like The Breakfast Club, whose arch subdivisions of humanity were already stale 23 years ago. For that matter, somebody - Burstein or the studio, hard to say - was fully aware of the similarity.

It's obvious to the point of clichΓ© that there's no such thing as an "real" documentary: the act of editing cannot help but take footage out of context, and the finished film always reflects the priorities of the people making it. That's hardly a flaw in the documentary form; hell, Werner Herzog has made half of his career out of poking at the line between "reality" and "the filmmaker's reality." So it's not really a problem that American Teen is a reductive vision of the Real Warsaw per se. But dear God, did it have to be such a trite reductive vision? There's virtually nothing that's particularly revelatory, true or unexpected in the film, whose argument boils down to: white Midwestern teenagers are restless and get very worked up over interpersonal dramas. Gee willickers, I'm sure glad a film crew traveled all the way to north central Indiana to make that shocking discovery. And assigning each of the protagonists a specific role to fill doesn't make them seem more universal, or whatever the hell Burstein was hoping to achieve by making "The Breakfast Club but as a documentary". It just makes them seem incredibly dull, particularly Colin, who appears in the film to have exactly one motivation in his whole life: do well at sports to get a college scholarship.

Then, there's a very good question about how much of the film is all that "real", anyhow. Again, we all know that you can't make a completely honest non-fiction film, since observation changes that which is being observed, but the seams in this purported "documentary" are exceptionally easy to see: there are oblique references to off-camera actions that the movie would rather ignore (Hannah's on anti-depressants? That seems like a relevant detail); the chronology is unmistakably shuffled to make the plot arcs fit better (observe particularly how Jake's hair and facial acne fluctuate throughout the film); and there's just a whole lot of damn coverage being shot, too much, enough to get the viewer to wondering if maybe some or a lot of the stuff was re-staged. Or hell, invented outright.

I suppose every cynical viewer will have their own private moment of realisation that things are a bit shady with American Teen, but here is what did it for me: Jake is presented, throughout the film, as obsessed with video games, which essentially replace friends in his world; they give him the ability to be a hero and be admired without having to interact with live people.* And there's no video game Jake loves more than The Legend of Zelda, which he plays constantly, and even wears (I counted at least two different Zelda shirts, and I think I caught a third). Particularly, he plays The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, though he is seen to play the GameCube version, not the Wii version, and I distinctly recall thinking, "poor kid, can't even afford a Wii."

The double-take came about twenty minutes later: Twilight Princess came out in November, 2006. This film is set a year prior.

That's doubtlessly a tiny, nerdy detail, but it's nonetheless valid: in the fall of 2005, Jake could not possibly have been playing Twilight Princess on any damn system, much less fantasize about being a character in it. And from there, it was just a tiny skip to noticing that all of the insert shots of text-messaging didn't match up to the phone we saw in the wide shot, that the instant messaging program used here and there doesn't look like any in the real world, and from there we hit the big time: how much of this is true, how much of it is teenagers playing up for the camera (which we all know had to be at least a part of it; young people have ever played to the camera, and thus was born YouTube), and worst of all, how much was Burstein prodding the subjects in the direction of making a better movie.

Obviously, you put a camera in the school, and school becomes unreal; that's Burstein's fault but it's not malicious. Filming reality is a tricky thing, and in this case the director wasn't good at it, so I don't necessarily mean to call her a liar. Except, there's that Zelda thing, so actually, maybe that's exactly what I mean. Nanette Burstein, j'accuse.

4/10