Is high school like "The Hills"? Or "Friday Night Lights"? Do movies and television give the world an accurate portrait of what it's like to be a teenager growing up in America?
These are the questions brought up by documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein's new movie "American Teen." Three of the five subjects -- Megan Krizmanich, Hannah Bailey and Mitch Reinholt -- sat down with Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers to discuss their collective experiences on "Popcorn with Peter Travers" on ABC News Now.
"American Teen" is set in the small town of Warsaw, Ind., and focuses on five graduating high school seniors struggling through school and life, each from their respective social cliques. It won the Directing Award for a Documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Following Sundance, the movie was picked up by Paramount Vantage for major distribution and opened in New York and Los Angeles on July 25.
"Nanette was very clear that she just wanted to capture the typical high school experience, and she thought that the Midwest would do a good job with that," explained Krizmanich. "She just wanted to capture the struggles different kids go through and the different types of experiences they can have throughout high school, which I think she did a good job of. I was amazed when I watched the movie, just the completely different experiences kids could have going to the same high school, going to the same, like, timeframe that I did but just had such a different grasp on it."
Having a camera crew tag along for 10 months of your senior year of high school isn't the easiest thing, as the students soon learned. "There were some of my friends that didn't want to be on the camera at all, so after a basketball game guys would be coming over to my house and, like, they'd ask if the cameras were coming. If I said yes, probably about half of them wouldn't come," recalled Reinholt. "Which is OK, they didn't have to be involved, but it kind of took away some of the time I had with them. But there's not a whole lot I can do about that. I don't think they disliked the cameras, they just didn't want to be there for it."
But soon they became accustomed to it. "It took about four, five or six weeks for me," said Bailey. "Somewhere around Halloween, they came trick-or-treating with us, with my family, with my friends. I didn't notice them that night. I don't even remember, but I know they were there because I saw the footage. We also started becoming really good friends with Nanette and the crew, so that helped a lot."
"At the end of the year, everybody kind of had a microphone on, so it was hard to differentiate who was being followed, like, intensely and who wasn't," added Krizmanich.
Despite Burstein's well-meaning intentions, it becomes challenging not to fall into stereotyping the different subjects and their respective social cliques.
"I think I kind of fit into my stereotype in high school," said Krizmanich. "I think a big thing in the movie is that we all kind of break the stereotypes at the end of it. We prove that no matter what clique you're in, everybody struggles in high school. It's kind of the same experience, a crappy experience for everybody. It's not easy for anyone, but I definitely played through the mean girl a little bit, I think. "
"I think it proves that there's a lot more to each of us," Reinholt added. "The movie introduces us as two-dimensional characters that fit into the mold, and then throughout the movie you kind of see that they're three-dimensional."
The documentary comes in the wake of semireality television hits dealing with a similar premise, such as "Laguna Beach" and its spin-off "The Hills." Though she admits to watching the shows, Krizmanich commented, "I think those reality shows are just kind of one-layered, and I think we took reality to multiple layers. I think that you get to know us personally and get to deal with our families, not just all the drama that's happening in our life. I think it especially helped that Nanette had so much footage to work with."
Though filmed in 2006, it was only recently that the students were able to view the documentary. Since then, they're all gone on their respective paths to college. Krizmanich and Bailey both privately screened the film in New York City.
"My first time seeing it," said Reinholt, "was at Sundance the night before the world premiere. It was the five of us in a room with Nanette, and we just sat down and watched it. It was emotional for me, I think we all kind of felt for each other a little bit, but we were also having fun with it."
"It was incredible; I didn't even know Jake [Tusing] at all in high school. I met him on the plane to Sundance," he added. "So we went to the same high school, graduated together, and I didn't even know what he looked like until we got there. But looking back on that now, I'm kind of sad that I didn't know him because we're really good friends now, and I feel like I kind of wasted time in high school that we could have been hanging out, getting along and having fun together."
"We're all best friends now, we've grown very close," Reinholt said. To which Krizmanich quickly quipped, "Like a little family."
All of the participants had different perspectives on their favorite moment in the film. "For me it's watching the very end of the movie when Hannah is in San Francisco and you see her smile," Reinholt admitted. "She did what she wanted to do, she stood up for what she thought was right and just went. "
"I think for a really touching one, it's Colin's moment when he's with his dad in the car talking about the Army and he's so adamant about how he 'doesn't have what it takes to kill a person.' That line, it's like hope for Americans in general," said Bailey. "He's standing up for what he believes in, it's such a huge topic and subject and it's his father. I just think it's wonderful. I love that moment."
Krizmanich sums it up, "I think we relate a lot to all teenagers. I think that high school experiences can differ a little bit depending on where you live, but overall I think we kind of represent the struggle that high school is. It's not easy for anybody."