They made a movie in my town

Early in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling describes a chance meeting he has with William Holden. Nothing particularly interesting happens during the encounter, but Binx walks away feeling like his life is somehow more real than it was before. Padadoxically, crossing paths with a movie star validates his existence in a way that years of living with his family and friends could not.

I experienced a number similar moments while watching American Teen, a documentary about high school life that was shot in Warsaw, Indiana, the town I’ve lived in for the past 15 years. I don’t know any of the main subjects in the film and I didn’t even go to Warsaw High School (I was homeschooled), but I recognized nearly all of the locations used in the film. Seeing the park where I like to read and jog projected on a movie theater screen was a surreal feeling; I also drove home from the theater on some of the same roads used in the movie.

Like Walker Percy’s narrator, there’s no logical reason for me to feel more important or recognizable simply because my hometown was the anonymous setting for an indie documentary. But for whatever reason, I do.

What I mean by “anonymous setting” is that, in the overall scope of the film, where it takes place is not especially important. Director Nanette Burstein could have chosen to shoot her movie in any small Midwestern city and ended up with more or less the same film. That, of course, is a large part of American Teen’s appeal; you feel like this could have been your high school.

At least, that’s the impression I’ve gleaned from other reviews I’ve read. The only time I’ve really spent inside Warsaw High School was when I took the SATs there.

American Teen centers on 4 students going through their senior year of high school: free-spirited artsy girl Hannah; funny, likable basketball star Colin; popular Megan; and socially awkward band geek Jake. (If you’re reading this and don’t know me, imagine Jake without band and you’ll have a pretty good idea of my personality.)

Hannah, who reminds me of Julia Stiles, lives with her grandmother because her father has a job in Ohio and her manic-depressive mother isn’t equipped to raise a daughter. She hates “conservative, Christian, red-state all the way” Warsaw. Her dream is to go to film school in California and then to make movies that will change people’s lives. I haven’t asked him specifically, but I’m pretty sure my brother, who just got back from a year in Chile and now lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, would echo a lot of Hannah’s sentiments. And while I’m probably even more “indie” than he is, I’ve never felt the same drive to escape and see the world. A large part of the explanation for this difference lies with my best friend, Netflix.

Hannah’s best friend in Warsaw is Clarke, a quiet, supportive guy who wears knit hats. (You really don’t learn much more about him than that.) When her long-term boyfriend breaks up with her, Clarke is the first person she tells. Other than Jake, Clarke is the character I identified with best.

Colin’s dad, Gordy, is an Elvis impersonator. One of the movie’s best scenes shows him entertaining at a senior citizens’ center while Colin looks on. (Coincidentally, my mom briefly worked with Gordy.) The only way Colin will be able to go to college is if he gets a basketball scholarship; as his father repeatedly reminds him, it’s either a scholarship or the army. His segments feel like watching highlights from Hoosiers if Gene Hackman was a minor character.

Megan is, essentially, a Plastic (the generic popular clique from Mean Girls): Rich and popular, seemingly a part of every afterschool program, immature, able to get away with whatever she wants to, and a bitch. (The guy in the row in front of me said so out loud.) She has friends she abuses repeatedly, forwards a topless photo of a girl whom her male friend Geoff likes to the entire school, vandalizes a student council member’s window, and never shows remorse beyond the “I’m sorry if you feel that way” type. When Geoff starts dating Megan’s best friend Alli, she becomes jealous that they’re leaving her out and slaps him.

Jake’s only social clique is the school marching band. Other than that, he is either ignored or picked on at school. He spends his free time playing video games and wishing he wasn’t so lonely. Jake also has a rather impressive “stuffed animal” collection, i.e., taxidermied animals populate his walls and desk.

In his one-on-one interviews, Jake is well aware of how awkward he is, and also of how powerless he is to change his standing at the school; to me, he came across as the most reflective and self-aware, as well as the funniest, of the four students. His social shortcomings, though, do not stop him from asking out every new girl he gets a crush on. The results are alternately heartwarming and painful.

Chances are you’ll see yourself in at least one of the American Teens in the movie. Indeed, They were selected for just that purpose. Paradoxically, the universality of the characters is both the strength and weakness of American Teen. They are instantly relatable and generally likable, but in the end, and they all feel so normal and familiar that none of them are especially unique or memorable. I suppose, though, that that’s the point: Burstein succeeds in making her subjects so real that they don’t feel like characters in a movie.

It’s probably because I watch too many movies and read too many novels, but sometimes real people are a little boring to me.

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One Response to “They made a movie in my town”

  1. Clint Dawg Says:

    Tyler, just thought I’d let you know I enjoyed reading your thoughts. God gave you the gift of being an awesome writer bro!

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