Life in a typical American high school isn't the most original idea for a documentary: Back in 1968, Frederick Wiseman took his cameras inside a Philadelphia secondary school in HIGH SCHOOL; in 2001, Kirby Dick passed 10 video cameras around California's John Marshal High for CHAIN CAMERA and the Fox network produced the acclaimed Yearbook (1991) and American High (2001), which followed a group of high-school students through those treacherous teenage years. What makes Nanette Burstein's 95-minute documentary different is her level of involvement, and her obvious presence pushes the film away from Weisman's form of verite toward more slickly produced reality fare like The Hills. Still, the kids are real and their stories enthralling: When it comes to drama, there's nothing quite like high school.
Burstein follows a group of four unrelated Warsaw, Indiana, students as they negotiate their crucial senior year, from the first day of class through to graduation. Though one participant describes Warsaw as predominantly white, Christian and middle-class, the quartet is relatively diverse. Hannah Bailey, the center of the film, is what passes for "alternative" among her conservative peers: She's creative, likes art, photography and film and despite her parents' objections, plans to attend film school in the fall, hopefully in California. Her mother suffers from manic-depression and her father works in Chicago, so Hannah lives with her grandmother; she's too much of an iconoclast to fit in with the cookie-cutter popular kids, but she's not exactly a nerd and has been dating the same boyfriend for two years. Crisis hits when the love of her life suddenly dumps her, and Hannah is thrown her into a deep, debilitating depression that makes her fear that her mother's disorder may be hereditary. On the surface, lantern-jawed Colin Clemens seems to have an easier time of things: He's a basketball hero in a high-school sports town. But Colin's facing heavy pressure at home: His father, a BMOC in his own day and now an Elvis impersonator in his spare time, keeps reminding Colin that if he plans to attend college in the fall, it will have to be on a sports scholarship. The pressure pushes Colin to become more aggressive on the court, to the detriment of his team. Self-described marching-band geek Jake Tusing is focused on the short-term goal of finding a girlfriend. Charming, funny and not bad-looking if you can see past the braces and dodgy complexion, Jake thinks he's found what he's looking for when new girl Lorin agrees to a date. Lorin, however, may not be the one-man woman Jake thinks. And then there's Megan Krizmanich, the villain of the piece. Pretty, bright and well-to-do, she aspires to Notre Dame -- pre-med, no less -- but those ambitious plans aren't entirely her own: Her overbearing father, a Notre Dame alum, would like to see all his children attend his alma mater. Megan is academically driven and downright Machiavellian when it comes to her friends and -- woe to them -- her enemies. But like the other teens profiled, there are unseen depths to the persona, and a tragedy in Megan's recent past soon surfaces that helps to explain a lot.
Burstein never tries to hide the fact that some of what we're seeing has been produced especially for the cameras: She even includes clever animated sequences to help visualize how the students see themselves. Older audiences who are still uncomfortable with the obvious manipulations evident on so-called Reality TV may balk, but there's no denying that Burstein has captured something very real, honest truths about growing up that no one who's been to high-school can deny. Her film will leave you cheering for a group of "typical" kids who are anything but ordinary. leave a comment --Ken Fox