Nanette Burstein’s happy that American Teen isn’t your average doc.
Nanette Burstein is about to bring two babies into the world. When we caught up with the Oscar nominee behind On the Ropes and The Kid Stays In The Picture last May, the very pregnant Burstein was juggling maternity with interviews for her latest feature, American Teen.
She warned that the baby "kicks when someone asks the wrong question."
The mother-to-be was beaming about both her healthy pregnancy and a film that has been tracking well with tween audiences since it garnered the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. One enthusiastic audience member at an advance screening I attended praised American Teen as her new favourite film.
The film tracks five high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana, as they cope with everything from fitting in to heartbreak. The film has been getting some apt comparisons as it takes on the contours of popular teen movies from the past.
"They're saying that it's the real-life Breakfast Club," notes Burstein, referring to common reactions as well as an early poster that paid direct homage to the John Hughes classic.
Burstein was content with this initial marketing tactic since it got across the idea that her film was not your average documentary.
"People think of most documentaries as educational or political, and not highly entertaining or with much of a narrative. And so I think that the studio - and I agree with them - really wanted to get across that this is a story that you almost feel could have been scripted. But it's not."
American Teen does tread a very fine line between documentary and fiction, and the very genuine subjects often fall in line with their doppelgängers from previous teen films. Such similarities led to accusations that Burstein tinkered with reality.
Burstein admits that she made some editorial choices when considering which students to follow. She dropped five subjects along the way. Some, she discovered didn't want to be filmed.
As for the others, "The story I thought was going to happen didn't happen. It's just that their lives changed and it didn't really seem like they had a big, overriding conflict any more."
Burstein's selectiveness had a lot to do with certain trademark tales she had in mind while shaping her documentary.
"Take the Romeo and Juliet story," Burstein recalls, "whether it's love across class lines or clique lines or race lines, or the triumph over adversity usually related to sports, or the underdog looking for acceptance, or the mean girl's power struggle. Those stories certainly resonated for me when I was looking for stories."
Burstein's approach is not unlike that of entertainers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, the sort of "make-it-happen" documentarians who predetermine how real life should play out on film. However, unlike Moore and Spurlock, Burstein speaks directly to the conventions of fiction film.
"I found that teen movies depict their characters as really one-dimensional and clichéd, and are more like a fairy tale. So I wanted to have real kids, with real complications, in those stories that we can all relate to."
American Teen opens in theatres Friday. Burstein's other baby is due any minute.