A few weeks ago, I had a chance to catch a screening of a new documentary, American Teen, a movie being called a “modern day Breakfast Club.”
I loved the movie.
Maybe it has something to do with having just taught at a high school similar to the one in the film, but I also think it’s easy to relate to and shows a lot of truths about high school life you don’t see in scripted films. (The documentary was filmed a few years ago at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana.)
At the theater I saw it at, my friend and I were surrounded by a couple hundred new college students going through a freshmen orientation. They were screaming at the screen when the “popular” girl did something bitchy. They were going “Aww!” when the “geek” asked out a girl (and failed miserably). They were in tears when one student achieved a major goal toward the end of the film. The reactions were almost as entertaining as the movie itself. Everyone was emotionally invested in the students’ lives. You felt like you knew the kids personally.
One of the students prominently featured in the movie was Hannah Bailey, the “rebel.”
According to the movie’s official website:
Hannah Bailey is smart and beautiful, but a misfit in her high school. She is a liberal atheist living in a traditional, Christian, conservative town and dreams of moving to California after graduation.
Truth be told, Hannah’s agnostic, not atheist. But religion doesn’t play a major role in the film.
In fact, despite the conservative nature of the town, director Nanette Burstein said religion and politics were not major topics in the movie for a key reason:
Because they don’t care about them. And at my high school, nobody cared about politics. And religion… I shouldn’t say nobody cared about religion, because that’s not true. Politics, they definitely don’t care about. Religion, I was open to being a problem — or, if a conflict came up that was important. There were certainly relationships where a certain kid might be much more religious and dating a Catholic, and that might be a problem for their parents. But that just didn’t come up in the people I was filming. The only one who came from a pretty religious background was Mitch, the blonde guy. But it didn’t really enter into his story. Politics never entered into it, because they just didn’t care. And it doesn’t affect their world.
Hannah’s story was possibly the most compelling for me, and she was gracious enough to answer some questions pertaining to her (lack of) faith and the film:
Hemant Mehta: It’s hard enough reliving tough high school moments in one’s memory… What was it like watching breakups and other difficult moments from your senior year on film?
Hannah Bailey: Re-living high school’s not too tough. I’ve moved on. I will never talk to most of those kids again, so it doesn’t matter much. I’m friends with Joel [the "perfect boyfriend" who broke up with her]. I’ve made peace with the experience. It’s alright.
HM: What did you learn about yourself and your friends when watching the movie that you didn’t know (or couldn’t know) when you were in high school? What secrets came to light only when you saw the final product?
HB: People ask me what I learned about myself. Honestly, I didn’t learn much from the movie. I learned a lot from moving to California, confronting my problems, reflecting — you know, just generally living. By the time I saw the movie (2 years after I graduated), I had figured most of that high school stuff out already. I guess one thing I am starting to realize now is that my best friend, Clarke [seen in the film], is definitely the most incredible person on this planet. But, I think I kinda already knew that.
HM: Did any scenes make you wince? Were any of them surprisingly pleasant to watch?
HB: It’s a little hard to see myself cry again and again, but what girl doesn’t cry after a heart-crushing breakup. Most, I assume. It’s difficult to watch my mom and hear the audience’s reaction when she says “You’re not special.” I wish people would realize that she simply misspoke. She meant that I shouldn’t deserve special treatment, that I shouldn’t think of myself as above anyone else. She was right.
The Mitch and me montage was surprisingly cute. The dragon outfit scene is the best.
HM: How did your agnosticism affect how people perceived you in your school? In your community? Were you “out” about being non-religious?
HB: I don’t really talk openly about religion much. I figure it’s good to let people do what they want to do. The only time I really argue is when religion creates any kind of prejudice tendencies or just plain ignorance. I will speak up about that because, in my opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to religion, but when it comes to any kind of prejudice because of religion, there is. As I say in the film, Warsaw is predominantly Christian, which is true. It used to bother me more when I was younger, because I felt so different I guess, but I trained myself to be more accepting as I entered high school and beyond. A lot of my best friends are religious. I have no problem with that because they’re totally cool about it.
HM: Where did that agnosticism stem from? It seemed like your family was religious in some way in the movie…
HB: My extended family is religious, yes, but my immediate family is much more lax about it. My mom was raised as a strict Catholic, so she sort of rebelled against that as she grew up. She’s still Christian, but she doesn’t feel the need to go to church or make a big to do about it. My dad is more like me. Much more open-minded about the whole subject. I was very spiritual as a kid, but I always questioned how so many major religions can be “the one.” It never made sense. I decided when I was very young that I wasn’t going to denounce any one religion, but I wasn’t going to practice one specifically either. Who am I to say what’s right or wrong?
HM: When you and the other students featured in the film saw the movie for the first time, what were your reactions?
HB: The other “teens” and I (along with Nanette the director, and Jordan [Roberts] the producer) watched the movie together the night before the Sundance premiere. It was very emotional. We all cried a bit, I think. Mostly laughs though. We’re all so far removed from that drama that’s it’s laughable now.
We took the whole thing a lot lot lighter than the audience normally does.
HM: High school reunion: Looking forward to it?
HB: I’ll go to a high school reunion. I’m looking forward to drinking and dancing with my friends. I’m looking forward to finding out what became of everyone. It should be fun.
HM: What sorts of movies do you plan on making once you finish film school?
HB: Right now, I’m looking to write comedy, comedy-horror, and drama. Those are my specialties. I would edit anything. I don’t have plans to direct right now, but you never know. Ask me again in 10 years.
If this movie is showing anywhere in your area, go see it. Totally worth the price of admission.