HIGH school can be hard to shake. Some people never make it out of the cafeteria; they’re still trying to find the cool kids’ table. With “American Teen,” opening nationwide on Friday, Nanette Burstein can claim a certain expertise on the subject. This movie earned her the documentary directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and set off a bidding war. It’s also something of an exorcism. Ms. Burstein was co-director, with Brett Morgen, of two highly regarded documentaries: the Oscar-nominated “On the Ropes,” about three young boxers hoping to fight their way out of poverty, and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” a portrait of the flamboyant Hollywood producer Robert Evans. But the impetus for “American Teen” was more personal: her own intense high school experience two decades ago in Buffalo.
To make the 90-minute film Ms. Burstein moved to Warsaw, Ind., and, deploying multiple cameras, gathered 1,000 hours of footage as she and her crew followed four 17-year-olds through their senior year at the town’s large, modern high school. The students could almost be the template for a John Hughes teen pic: the pampered queen bee Megan, whose imperious will to power masks a terrible secret; the basketball player Colin, who must win a sports scholarship or forgo college for the Army; the gifted bohemian Hannah, ready to break away but terrified that she may have inherited her mother’s bipolar disorder; and the lonely band nerd Jake, funny and appealing but afflicted with vivid acne flare-ups that complicate his wry, determined search for a girlfriend.
To watch these real teenagers is to see egos and identities in raw, volatile formation; on the verge of entering a larger world, they are reaching for a sense of self.