Interview: Director Nanette Burstein, Documentary Subjects Reflect on State of the ‘American Teen’

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CHICAGO – “High school is actually really important. It’s about formulating an identity, getting a path and sticking to it. A lot of the ghosts in your head that are critical can come from your high school years,” director Nanette Burstein said on her new documentary “American Teen”.

From left to right in Chicago on July 30, 2008: Colin Clemens (the jock), Mitch Reinholt (the curious soul), Megan Krizmanich (the popular girl) and Jake Tusing (the awkward outsider) in American Teen
From left to right in Chicago on July 30, 2008: Colin Clemens (the jock), Mitch Reinholt (the curious soul), Megan Krizmanich (the popular girl) and Jake Tusing (the awkward outsider) in “American Teen”.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald,

Hannah Bailey stars in Nanette Burstein's American Teen
Hannah Bailey stars in Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen”.
Photo credit: James Rexroad, copyright Paramount Vantage

There’s an old saying about show business being “high school with money”.

In this new documentary, there’s an expressed feeling that high school is show business without a safety net. In revealing the Indiana senior high school class of 2006, Burstein shines a light on the business of presenting yourself during a crucial point in life history. recently interviewed director Burstein and separately interviewed four of the five profiled teen subjects from the Warsaw, Ind. high school. “American Teen” follows the true lives of five classmates during their 2006 senior year in the Midwestern town.

Burstein chose familiar archetypes from all eras to illustrate teenage angst.

Hannah Bailey is a rebel and a misfit rocker in the conservative area. Colin Clemens is the basketball jock who’s hoping for the scholarship that can forward his sports career. Megan Krizmanich is the popular girl who harbors family guilt and college dreams.

American Teen writer and director Nanette Burstein in Chicago on May 12, 2008
“American Teen” writer and director Nanette Burstein in Chicago on May 12, 2008.
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald, Oscarman rating: 3.0/5.0
Rating: 3.0/5.0

Mitch Reinholt is a curious soul who’s looking to date and know people outside his familiar clique. Jake Tusing is the awkward outsider who’s looking for acceptance and love from misunderstanding classmates.

Burstein describes the process of finding the right school to profile: “I narrowed it down to three states and called hundreds of schools. From that group, I got 10 schools to agree. I went to visit all those high schools and interviewed the incoming senior classes that were interested.”

She added: “I focused on the Midwest because there’s an innocence and timelessness about this part of the country. I wanted it to be in a town that only had one high school and wasn’t next to a big city because there would be more social pressure that way.”

Using trailing cameras, animated fantasy sequences and tight reporting, Burstein captured the classmates at both their most guarded and vulnerable moments. The year evolved with many surprises for the teens and being recorded made it all the more revealing.

Megan Krizmanich stars in Nanette Burstein's American Teen
Megan Krizmanich stars in Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen”.
Photo credit: James Rexroad, copyright Paramount Vantage

Jake Tusing (the awkward outsider) commented on the experience: “From the feedback I’ve received, my being open paid off for the audience. In a way, I learned I was stronger than I gave myself credit for. I was able to be open and honest with strangers – the filmmakers – while knowing no one but being able to express everything.”

“The first couple months was [about] getting the participants used to being filmed,” Burstein said. “The more popular kids took longer to let me in and trust me. Then when I got everyone comfortable, there could be three cameras going at once.”

Hannah Bailey (the rebel) goes into a serious depression over a lost relationship. Megan Krizmanich (the popular girl) vows revenge for a perceived slight. Colin Clemens (the jock) frighteningly sees his dream for a basketball scholarship start to dwindle.

Mitch Reinholt stars in Nanette Burstein's American Teen
Mitch Reinholt stars in Nanette Burstein’s “American Teen”.
Photo credit: James Rexroad, copyright Paramount Vantage

Mitch Reinholt (the curious soul) makes an embarrassing mistake with mobile technology. Jake Tusing (the awkward outsider) is painfully trying for acceptance. In other words, everything most of the previous high school generations have gone through is new again.

“When we were filming, we were just hanging out with director Nanette Burstein and it didn’t seem like a big deal,” Mitch Reinholt (the curious soul) related. “It is more difficult to watch myself on the big screen while reliving mistakes over and over and over again.”

Burstein added: “The core issues in high school haven’t changed from then to now. I was feeling the same things doing this documentary that I felt in high school about wanting to fit in, the feelings of manipulation and the rumors from everyone.”

Secrets are revealed about Megan Krizmanich (the popular girl) and her family including a sister’s suicide. Her parents accepted the film’s more personal moments.

“My parents were very satisfied – and especially with the way it came out about my sister,” Krizmanich said. “While there were some shockers about what was happening behind closed doors, the two-year buffer [from filming to release] helped a bit there.”

StarView our full, high-resolution “American Teen” image gallery.

StarMore film reviews from critic Patrick McDonald.

“I didn’t have too much drama to capture,” said the basketball-playing Colin Clemens, “but the filmmakers were surprised how well my dad could move as an Elvis impersonator.”

Burstein commented on the differences she found with the modern high school experience: “Technology has brought some change. Mobile phones, text messages, e-mail and iChat all cause regrettable behavior because at that age there’s no perspective on short- or long-term consequences.”

She added: “Cruelty is also amped up and cyber bullying is off the charts. Overall, that makes high school more challenging.”

But in conclusion, Burstein’s documentary is about universal themes. She added: “Your peers very much want you to act one way, and if you want to fit in, you might have to sublimate who you are. For me, the theme was about identity.

“It is very hard to figure out who you are at that age – but you are starting to – and it’s the first time in your life you are starting to figure out who you are.”

”American Teen,” which is written and directed by Nanette Burstein and features Hannah Bailey, Colin Clemens, Megan Krizmanich, Mitch Reinholt, Jake Tusing, Geoff Haase and Ali Wikalinska as themselves, opened in Chicago and elsewhere on Aug. 1, 2008. staff writer Patrick McDonald

Staff Writer

© 2008 Patrick McDonald,

Anonymous's picture

America is the best country

America is the best country for young people. I know about some American teen who deal with business very well. they are much younger than me.

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