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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Worst Doc of the Year?

Aaron Hillis has a nicely written piece up on the year’s documentaries that I mostly agree with, except for the part where he labels American Teen as the “worst documentary of the year.” Maybe Aaron hasn’t seen as many documentaries as I have this year (though I suspect that’s not the case), but I have to take umbrage with that assertion, having sat through many, many docs that were so much worse than American Teen as not to even warrant a remote comparison. It wasn’t even the worst doc I saw at Sundance this year, much less all the other fests I went to in 2008.

What I’ve found particularly interesting about the criticial response to American Teen is how it’s seemed to suffer from “Juno Syndrome,” that peculiar fate that seems to befall films that are generally well-received until they get too popular, and then flip and become the target of disdain and ire from a certain segment of the critical population. Which is not to say that I think American Teen is the best doc of the year, but I did like it very much when I saw it at Sundance, and liked it just as much when I saw it again months later at the Dead Center film fest in Oklahoma City. At Sundance, there was a great deal of positive critical buzz swirling around the film, and most — certainly not all, but most — of the pretty smart group of folks I hang with at that fest seemed to enjoy it overall. Dear Zachary was just stirring up buzz at Slamdance, but at Sundance, Trouble the Water, American Teen and the Roman Polanski doc seemed to be getting the bulk of the positive response on the doc side of things.
Then American Teen was bought by Paramount Vantage during the fest for $1 million and, of course, once a film gets bought at Sundance for a nice sum, you’re bound to see some critics lining up to lob snowballs at it (much the same thing happened to Little Miss Sunshine, which was also a Sundance acquisition … as soon as the blood was mopped off the floor from that bidding war, certain critical elements were writing about how it was that year’s Happy, Texas, how it would never make back Fox Searchlight’s investment, blah blah blah).
What seemed to make the turn for American Teen into “it’s hip to bash this film” territory was Paramount Vantage’s marketing campaign that touted the film as the modern doc version of The Breakfast Club — which may or may not have been what director Nanette Burstein was aiming for, but once it took hold, it was hard to shake off that allusion. After that, there seemed to be a shift in the film’s approval rating among critical circles. If your film is perceived as the underdog and resonates with the contrarians (even if it’s not particularly well-made) you’re written about as being under-appreciated and people will praise it to the moon; everyone likes to tout something no one else has heard of or seen or liked. Which is not to say that’s necessarily Hillis’ motivation in slamming American Teen — he’s certainly entitled to think it’s the worst doc of the year, and equally possible that he’d think the worst film I saw all year (that would be Serbis, which I may never fully recover from) was a masterful work of art. We all have different cinematic tastes, which is part of what keeps criticism interesting; it wouldn’t be much fun to read what folks have to say if we all liked the same things, would it?
Nonetheless, when it comes to American Teen, I think much of the overall critical ire is coming from a place of taking the film down a peg or two, rather than on its actual merits. We can debate the issue of whether Burstein crossed a line of contrivance here or there, and whether American Teen merges too much narrative structure into its genre, and we can debate whether Burstein manipulated her subjects too much, or wasn’t objective enough, or even question the particular subjects she chose — but we could also debate those exact same topics for any number of docs I saw this year, many of which were not as artfully shot and edited as American Teen.
Burstein took some typical teen stereotypes (and boy, did the marketing play off them), focusing her storytelling lens on Colin, the jock, Megan, the rich, popular beauty queen, Hannah the rebel, Mitch, the other jock, and Jake, the dork. But in other respects, American Teen is as far from a John Hughes movie as one could get. Megan is the bad girl you love to hate, but Burstein reveals surprising vulnerabilities in her that make you almost like her by the end. Hannah the Rebel hooks up for a while with Mitch the Cute Jock, but she doesn’t go dancing off into the twinkling lights of happily-ever-after with him — he dumps her via text message (her second break-up in the film) and she finds her inner strong woman, standing up to her bipolar mother and leaving her small town to pursue film school. Colin, the affable, popular basketball team captain, is shown to be facing enormous pressure to win in order to win a basketball scholarship, or he’ll be heading into the military instead of off to college. And Jake, poor Jake, the quintessential outsider, is more raw and honest in his loneliness than any Anthony Michael Hall nerd could have been in Hughes’ wildest wet dreams.
I can agree with some of the dissension around certain aspects of the film, in that it does frequently feel as if Burstein sets up situations rather than waiting for them to naturally unfold, but how much of that was the result of building up a sense of trust with the kids and them being open to revealing themselves in often unflattering ways, and how much was actual contrivance, is hard to say. The one bit in the film that made me cringe a bit was the bit where one of the girls sends a bare-breasted pic of herself to a guy, who sends it to a friend, and so on and so on and so on until everyone’s talking about her “pepperonis” and mean-girl Megan is leaving nasty voice mails about what a slut she is … as I was watching that whole segment, I couldn’t help but think, jeez, maybe someone should step in here and say, “You know, that’s not okay” before the poor girl commits suicide on camera. All of which kind of delves into the whole “prime directive” debate around documentary filmmaking: how objective does a filmmaker need to be towards what she’s capturing on film, how much contrivance crosses the line between making a doc versus crafting a narrative-doc hybrid … topics that have been paneled and blogged about nearly to death, but which I expect we’ll continue to see more of in the future.
Overall though, American Teen, for me, had most of the elements that make for good documentary storytelling: the director chose interesting subjects who were not nearly as cliched as the marketing made them out to be, each of them had character and story arcs that made them compelling, it was well-edited and flowed well narratively, and by the end, we’ve learned something about each of the kids, as they’ve learned about themselves. Further, the characters’ stories are revealed through us watching things happen, rather than a bunch of boring talking-head interviews, and for all that the film has been compared to The Hills and other reality-tv shows, it really bears very little resemblance to any of them, if you look beyond the surface packaging in which the the marketing team wrapped it.
Other than Hillis labeling American Teen the worst doc of the year, though, I mostly agree with the points he’s made in his piece, in particular his praising of Man on Wire, which to me represented all the best that documentary filmmaking can and should be — beautifully edited, taut with dramatic tension even though we know the outcome, interviews with the major players that never feel like talking-heads, and some of the best use of archival footage and stills I’ve ever seen in a doc. It’s artsy without being snooty, and dramatic without feeling contrived; if only every doc on the upcoming Sundance lineup would hit so many solid marks, I would be one happy critic in Park City in January. I know, unlikely … but it’s Christmas Eve, and I can wish, can’t I?

2 Responses to “Worst Doc of the Year?”

  1. karina says:

    “much the same thing happened to Little Miss Sunshine, which was also a Sundance acquisition … as soon as the blood was mopped off the floor from that bidding war, certain critical elements were writing about how it was that year’s Paris, Texas…”
    I *think* you mean “Happy, Texas.”

  2. Kim Voynar says:

    I did indeed. Thanks, and correction made.

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“The thought is interrupted by an odd interlude. We are speaking in the side room of Casita, a swish and fairly busy Italian bistro in Aoyama – a district of Tokyo usually so replete with celebrities that they spark minimal fuss. Kojima’s fame, however, exceeds normal limits and adoring staff have worked out who their guest is. He stops mid-sentence and points up towards the speakers, delighted. The soft jazz that had been playing discreetly across the restaurant’s dark, hardwood interior has suddenly been replaced with the theme music from some of Kojima’s hit games. Harry Gregson-Williams’ music is sublime in its context but ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ is not, Kojima acknowledges, terribly restauranty. He pauses, adjusting a pair of large, blue-framed glasses of his own design, and returns to the way in which games have not only influenced films, but have also changed the way in which people watch them. “There are stories being told [in cinema] that my generation may find surprising but which the gamer generation doesn’t find weird at all,” he says.
~ Hideo Kojima

“They’re still talking about the ‘cathedral of cinema,’ the ‘communal experience,’ blah blah. The experiences I’ve had recently in the theatre have not been good. There’s commercials, noise, cellphones. I was watching Colette at the Varsity, and halfway through red flashes came up at the bottom of the frame. A woman came out and said, ‘We’re going to have to reboot, so take fifteen minutes and come back.’ Then they rebooted it from the beginning, and she had to ask the audience to tell her how far to go. You tell me, is that a great experience? I generally don’t watch movies in a cinema at all. Netflix is the future. It’s the present. But the whole paradigm of a series, binge-watching, it’s quite different. My first reaction is that it’s more novelistic, because if you have an eight-hour season, you can get into complex, intricate things. You can let it breathe and the audience expectations are such that they will let you, where before they wouldn’t have the patience. I think only the surface has been touched with experimenting with that.”
~ David Cronenberg