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Tuesday, April 16
The Indiana Daily Student

The teen screen

Courtesy photo

American Teen,” a new Sundance prize winning documentary, following the lives of several high-schoolers, hits theaters tomorrow. The movie was filmed in Warsaw, Indiana, and while you may know people from the town, hell you may even know people in the movie, don’t look for any opinions or local insights about the area from this columnist. As a non-native Hoosier who grew up in the Chicago suburbs I know nothing of the area (except that the trailer depicts it as straight-up farm land). But what’s important about the film, or at least suggested by its title, is that it’s not just “Indiana Teen,” but “American Teen,” aiming to capture everyone’s formative years on film.

The recent onslaught of teen movie and TV shows like “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is nothing new. Hollywood (we’ll use that big old, ever expansive noun even though the film was independently made) has always obsessed over teens-and ones with lots of angst and drama.

The teen genre practically started back in the 50s (created by studio execs nonetheless) with the likes of “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” then eventually progressed to the 80s John Hughes era, and to today’s continuous “90210” rip-offs-including a new “90210.” There will always be teen movies for the simple reason that teenagers are a constant demographic and one with disposable income.

Too bad MTV has pretty much ruined everyone’s views of the high school years with the snobby overblown teens of “My Super Sweet 16” and “Laguna Beach.” Hell, they’ve even destroyed the 20s with every abysmal “Room Raiders” like dating show. “American Teen” aims to ground these overblown portrayals, by filming “real” kids living their “real” lives. Sure when there’s cameras involved one can always doubt the level of authenticity but from even a quick view of the trailer, these kids actually seem more like people you might have sat next to in third period English than, say, the all-singing, all dancing students of “High School Musical”

The glossy OMG reaction shows like “Gossip Girl” and “The O.C.” are great entertainment, but great scripted entertainment. Viewers may occasionally relate to Blair Waldorf and co. but are usually separated by their own lack of designer clothes and Manhattan penthouses. That connection and sense of hey ‘I’ve done that, I feel that way too’ is what teen shows often aim for. And it only really works when following real people, and actually attempting to be authentic. Sincerity made MTV’s reality show “The Paper” enjoyable.

The trailer for “Teen” labels its subjects with the usual archetypes: The Jock, The Geek, The Rebel, The Princess, and The Heartthrob. Sure these students probably even think of themselves in that way, but hopefully this is just a product of the marketing department. Trying to appeal to older audiences as well the trailer tries pulling them in by asking “who were you?”

So why are we always drawn back to the high school experience? I think, despite the awkward experiences, it comes down to nostalgia. For most people high school was pretty worry free. Yes there’s drama (as the film implies, from trivial dating issues to more serious ones like financial aid and mental illness) but at 16 most people don’t have to worry about mortgage payments, raising children, etc. High school is a time people begin to form some type of their identity that sticks with them for the rest of their life.

So whatever “Teen” is aiming for – nostalgia, simple laughs, a Pulitzer Prize - it may succeed, it may not. And in our reality TV driven era it looks like an enjoyable alternative to the oh so entertaining, but shallow “She’s All That’s” of the world.

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