Sundance favorite American Teen openly invites comparisons to The Breakfast Club—even the documentary's poster features its five teenaged subjects arranged in the same poses that Molly, Emilio, Judd, et al., once assumed to advertise John Hughes' 1985 homage to teen angst. American Teen dusts off Hughes' high school archetypes and gives them cell phones: There's rich girl Megan, dominating her friends with an unstoppable combination of charisma and pure meanness; Colin, the star basketball player; über-nerd Jake, whose acne ebbs and flows so dramatically throughout the film that it really should have a subplot of its own; preppy, likeable Mitch, who can't quite stand up against the peer pressure of his friends; and artsy outsider Hannah, who dreams of moving to California and becoming a filmmaker.
These character types are familiar, but the world has changed since the '80s: Sure, Molly Ringwald would've looked great with a BlackBerry Pearl, but these days Ally Sheedy would be on antidepressants and Anthony Michael Hall's bringing a flare gun to school would've had far worse consequences than a mere detention. Updating The Breakfast Club for the MySpace generation necessitated a change in format—and so, since truth is the new fiction, it makes sense that the best depiction of teenage life to hit the big screen in recent memory is a documentary. The allegedly unscripted American Teen goes behind the scenes in a small, conservative Indiana high school to present a snapshot of contemporary teenage life.
The kids are all seniors, focused on college and post-high school plans. Megan obsesses over whether or not she'll make it into Notre Dame; Hannah worries she's inherited her mother's manic depression; Colin is afraid he won't get the basketball scholarship he needs in order to afford college. And while there were no text-message breakup scenes in The Breakfast Club, some things just don't change: Watching these kids struggle under these pressures—self-imposed, or put on them by adults who think they know best—it's easy to remember why high school really did feel like a matter of life and death. High school is and always has been a dangerous place, and if anything, the introduction of new technologies has made it even more treacherous. (In case anyone out there hasn't learned this lesson already, American Teen offers some solid advice: Do not email topless photos of yourself to your friends, or you risk earning yourself the nickname "Pepperoni Nipples.")
The movie is satisfyingly voyeuristic—maybe that's part of the reason American Teen seems less a traditional documentary than an extended reality-TV show episode, albeit a good one. It's to the film's credit that it depicts high school in a clear-eyed, unsentimental fashion, showcasing the intelligence and complexity of its characters as they navigate a complicated and stressful social environment—and fostering in an adult audience a tremendous sense of relief at never, ever having to go through high school again.