the Real Breakfast Club

12 02 2008

A teen film about the real thing

I think Bender Said it best: “You mean the Breakfast Club Sandwich?”

(AP) — If John Hughes ever got into nonfiction, he’d find a kindred spirit in filmmaker Nanette Burstein.
American Teen

Director Nanette Burstein (center) stands with the cast of “American Teen” at the Sundance Film Festival.

Burstein’s documentary “American Teen” eagerly places its four main subjects — students at the only high school in Warsaw, Indiana — into the archetypes Hughes helped cement in ’80s movies like “The Breakfast Club.” There’s the homecoming queen, the artsy girl, the jock, the loner.

Thing is, this is real life. And as their senior years unfold on camera, viewers see layers of each person peeled away. The homecoming queen fires guns for fun and vandalizes a rival’s home. The jock faces pressure from his Elvis impersonator father to join the military.

Their stories are told in cinema verite fashion, spiced up by zippy fiction-style editing and a series of cartoon sequences representing the dreams and nightmares of these 17-year-olds (Playing in the NBA! Finding nirvana at Notre Dame!).

After premiering last month at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie will be released theatrically by Paramount Vantage. It looks set to make unlikely stars of the young people, now 20, who shared 10 months with Burstein’s cameras in the 2005-06 school year.

Already, well-received screenings meant Jake Tusing, the socially awkward marching band and video game geek, is marveling at how others root him on. He even started getting approached by women offering dates.

“I learned that people liked me. I never pictured myself as a likable person, but seeing people cheering for me in the theater, that really lifted my spirits,” he said in an interview following the Sundance premiere in Park City, Utah.

“Even I liked me more,” said Tusing, who spoke softly and wore a “Legend of Zelda” T-shirt. “I never liked myself in high school. That always wore on me a lot.”

The charm of “American Teen” comes from its intimacy and its subjects’ small town lack of guile. This is not the rehearsed, surface vapidity of “The Hills” or any of the quick-hit network TV reality shows.

Burstein, whose previous films include “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “On the Ropes,” was careful with her casting. She spoke with hundreds of teens at 10 Midwestern high schools, and struck upon Tusing, Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens and Megan Krizmanich after a round of videotaped interviews.

“They’re really funny, really articulate and self-aware in a good way,” she said. “And they had drama going on.”

Bailey is a media-savvy queen bee type — familiar if you’ve seen “Mean Girls” — who plots jealously, spreading topless pictures of an enemy through e-mail. Krizmanich, the aspiring filmmaker, falls into a doomed relationship that’s ended via text message.

Clemens, pressured to produce on the basketball court to land a college scholarship, becomes a ball hog. His father tells him repeatedly that if sports don’t work out, he should go into the military.

“I always thought of myself as a team player, but when it got serious in terms of scholarship or Iraq, I could tell I took it too much onto myself,” Clemens said in an interview.

There’s a happy ending; Clemens got his scholarship and is now a sophomore playing guard at Indiana Tech. But there are no “where are they now” type wrap-ups at the end of the movie. Burstein keeps it focused on her subject: the specific worries and stories of the modern high school senior.

“It’s about being 17,” she said. “I thought going into it that it was all going to be about the pressure of your peers. I realized that was an element of that, but you also had this identity crisis because of the pressure of your parents, and the future decisions you had to make, that you know nothing about.”




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