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"We should look beyond labels at an earlier age," says Reinholt. "I know I should have."

BURSTEIN CONVENES A BREAKFAST CLUB FOR THE 'REAL WORLD' GENERATION
(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

Growing up in the ’80s, Nanette Burstein bore witness to a new wave of teen comedies that made light of adolescent angst without trivializing it, movies that seemed to speak the language of their audience in honest, sympathetic terms. Yet as much as she could appreciate the storytelling of directors like Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, whose sometimes tortured high-school experiences informed two of the era’s most iconic films – Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club – Burstein envisioned something even more authentic.

“I grew up watching those films, and they had a profound affect on me,” says Burstein, 38, whose own high-school years in Buffalo, NY, were clouded by uncertainty over her future and the constant struggle to forge an identity without yielding to pressure from her peers and parents. “I could relate to the portrayal of adolescence and all its challenges. For the last fifteen years, I have wanted to explore those same themes in a nonfiction film, but with all the complexities and depth of real people that are often lacking in fictional movies.”

For her new documentary American Teen, which follows a tumultuous year in the lives of five Indiana seniors preparing for a future outside the increasingly confining world of Warsaw Community High, Burstein created a Breakfast Club of her own, assembling a cast of real-life students who seem to invite all the typical labels: The Jock, the Rebel, the Princess, the Heartthrob and the Geek.

For Burstein, who determined that her film should be set in a small, single-school town where “it’s that much harder for kids to escape the social structure,” the biggest challenge in finding the reality behind those archetypes lay in overcoming the wariness of her subjects: self-described nerd Jake Tusing; artsy outsider Hannah Bailey, who dreams of escaping to San Francisco; basketball star Colin Clemens; popularity queen Megan Krizmanich; and boyishly handsome Mitch Reinholt who, during one of the film’s most uncomfortable moments, breaks off a burgeoning romance via text-message.

“Teenagers are very secretive, because most adults disapprove of their lifestyles,” says Burstein, who persuaded her cast never to view her as an authority figure. “They constantly create drama for themselves, so performing for the camera wasn’t an issue. The real issue was getting them to be natural, to trust me. It took a couple months, but we developed strong relationships, and they learned to believe in what I was trying to do.

“There were times when certain people didn’t feel like being filmed, and I didn’t want to ever expose them in damaging ways. But I always wanted to show their complicatedness and humanity.”

For Krizmanich, who initially wanted nothing to do with the project during her final year at Warsaw – she’s now a pre-med student at her father’s alma mater, Notre Dame – it was Burstein’s honesty about her intentions and her unwavering persistence, particularly with Krizmanich’s parents, that convinced her to give American Teen a chance. Tusing and Clemens, however, say their decision was made simpler still by one inescapable factor: boredom.

“There’s really not a lot to do in Warsaw,” Tusing says in his wry monotone. “I had nothing better to do, and there was nothing to look forward to, so I thought the movie might be a fun distraction for a couple hours. It turned out to be a bigger commitment than that, but it was a great experience. I wouldn’t change a thing.”



American Teen is the first film to have its own Facebook page. For more information on Nanette Burstein and the cast of her latest documentary, visit http://www.facebook.com/americanteen.

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