Last night I went to a screening of a new documentary called American Teen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
American Teen is set in the small town of Warsaw, Indiana, which seems to be in the northern part of the state since at one point Jake Tusing, a senior at Warsaw, drives to Chicago to pick up his prom date. Nanette Burstein, the director, said in a Q&A afterward that she chose Warsaw for two reasons, the town was economically mixed and there was only one high school.
The four main characters in the film are Jake Tusing, a self-described nerd, loner and band geek whose goals for his senior year, include having a girlfriend, Hannah Bailey, who feels out of place in her small town. She has ambitions to not only get out of Indiana but to also become a filmmaker. Megan Krizmanich, is the self-described Queen Bee of Warsaw. On the student council, top student, popular, pretty and a huge bitch. Everyone in her family has gone to Notre Dame, and now it is her turn. Will she get in? Notre Dame is such a popular school and so hard to get into that they can only take so many legacies a year.
Colin Clemmons is the high school basketball star, who is desperate to win an athletic scholarship to college. Otherwise his only other choice is to join the military (or go to community college), neither of which he wants to do. Colin's family is sort of the middle class poor. His father makes enough money so that they are comfortable but not enough so that he can pay $25,000 a year for college. And he makes too much probably for Colin to qualify for financial aid.
Those are the four main characters in American Teen. There are other teens featured, friends of the teens, their families, but it is pretty much their story. Nanette Burstein followed them for their entire senior year, over ten months, while making the film. What was interesting about this film was although times change, the more things stay the same. I think anyone watching this film, no matter how old they are, will be able to relate to one of these teens. And they are much more then their stereotype. Colin, although he's a jock and popular, doesn't seem to have a steady girlfriend. He's so focused on his team winning the championship and being seen by college recruiters. Megan turns out to have a family tragedy in her background which explains some of her behavior in the film. It makes me wonder whether or not she had had any counseling at all, or if her family is just one of those that doesn't believe in it. She acts out in ugly ways in this film.
She does something to a friend that is unforgiveable, at least in my eyes, and I particularly felt for the girl because I went through something similar when I was a teenager. Megan also never seems to feel any remorse for any of her actions over the course of the film which I found hard to take. However, the director states that Megan has learned from her behavior and that she has grown considerably since the film was made. My favorite, of course, was Hannah, who feels totally out of place in her small town. Hannah lives with her grandmother because her mother is bi-polar and her father left Indiana to find work in Ohio. She's into emo and film and her boyfriend at the beginning of the film. Something happens to her at the beginning that totally throws her and she ends up worrying that she is like her mother.
Seeing this film made me realize that I need to dig deeper into my contemporary YA's. Still have the comedy elements, but make my characters less stereotypical. I'm looking to revisiting both of my earlier YA manucripts (after I finish the current one) to see how I can improve on the characters and make them grow. Particularly my first one, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream.
I would give this film an A. It's definitely worth checking out, particularly if you are interested in writing YA.