American Teen is billed as a documentary -- about what it means to be a high schooler in the United States in the 21st century -- and that's what it is, I suppose. It is a document. I saw it several times over the summer (for professional reasons). The first time I thought it was cute. The second time I thought it was cheap. And the third time I thought the film's glossy packaging, re-staged moments, and adherence to the narrative conventions of fiction made it a document about a generation raised in front of screens. This movie is not about real-life high school as much as it is about a generation who has been raised by television, and movies, and cell phones, and technologies that keep us occupied in a fantasy land instead of engaging us in the real world. This generation (my generation) knows how to present itself on camera, and its members know what's expected of them after "action." They know how their peers act on MTV and Bravo reality shows. And with American Teen, they had a director whose vision seemed about as real as The Real World.
I'm not suggesting Hannah Bailey is a fictional character. She is a real woman who had a real high school experience during which real things happened. I'm not suggesting her triumphs and problems were manufactured. But never once in American Teen does she forget the camera is watching her. By virtue of her natural traits and her screen savvy, Hannah is the heart and soul of the movie: pretty, charismatic, hip, nerdy in an endearing way, kind of a real-life Juno. American Teen director Nanette Burstein wisely focuses on Hannah, who has the necessary charisma and self-awareness to "carry a movie." And the two collaborate to create one of the more endearing characters onscreen in 2008.
Hannah Bailey laughs, cries, drinks, rocks out on the guitar, descends into depression, yearns to get out of her podunk town, and finally hops in a car and heads West. And we do all these things with her. All of these disparate events are packaged like a coming-of-age movie, with a beginning, middle and end. Hannah must perform when monologuing to the camera, when going through the natural beats of her story, when re-living the beats of her story that the camera missed the first time around. She knows the camera is there, and she knows what lines and actions will make a good scene (she gets more laughs and votes of sympathy than any of the other "characters"). Maybe the Hannah Bailey onscreen is the same as Hannah Bailey in real life. But when you know you're on camera, and you have a director who reinforces this self-awareness, and you have been raised in a media-savvy world...
Well, when the camera starts rolling, you become a character and you give a performance. And Hannah Bailey's was a memorable one, for more reasons than one.
This post is part of StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress Blogathon. What actor would you nominate in the category?