Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Now playing & resonating


'American Teen,' 'Baghead' now in theaters

Scene from American Teen. Photo: James Rexroad
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A brutally honest look at how five kids survive their senior year at a large Indiana high school, American Teen will resonate strongly for queer viewers, who will get an unnerving glimpse of how an anti-gay hate crime and a Brokeback Mountain DVD play out in the hinterlands. Nanette Burstein gives us five sharply etched personalities: the ruthless blonde beauty queen, the classic jock trying to escape the risible role model of an Elvis-impersonator dad, the athlete who flirts with being just a tad unconventional, the school-band nerd battling acne and a propensity to sabotage any promising social situation, and the manic/depressive brunette who steals our hearts with her vulnerability and her longing to come to San Francisco to become, what else, a filmmaker.

Welcome to 92 fun-packed minutes at Warsaw Community High School! The poster for American Teen is a parody of John Hughes' 1985 high school meltdown classic The Breakfast Club, and it is to Burstein's credit that she manages to present her real-life teens as Breakfast Club knockoffs and very true to their actual selves. While they don't literally torture each other in an all-day Saturday detention class, their stories intertwine in ways that will resonate with the fates of Hughes' archetypes: the Princess, the Athlete, the Brain, the Criminal and the Basket Case.

The kids of American Teen seem to be acting out scripts whose origins lie deep within our culture: Hannah finds the inner voice urging her to "get the hell out of Dodge" constantly undermined by the gravitational pull of the wrong boys and a harpy mom who spews self-esteem-curdling advice: "You're not going to get everything you want, you’re not special!" In-between episodes of getting dumped, Hannah hides in her room, skipping 17 straight days of school before finally being driven to class by her dad.

Blonde Megan nurses a hidden grief that seems to inspire a cruel sense of humor. When she spray-paints anti-gay graffiti on the house of an unsuspecting classmate, Megan gets off with a stern lecture, and viewers get a chilly reminder of the days when Indiana was a major center of Klan activity.

The boys of American Teen get off a little easier. The lantern-jawed Colin suffers bad advice from his dad, who urges him to ball-hog his way to a college basketball scholarship. Pretty-boy jock Mitch dates Hannah, carving out a little niche of semi-independence from Megan's blonde justice. We get a glimpse of homophobia without homosexuals as Mitch pulls his mates up short with the admission that he and Hannah watched Brokeback Mountain. Then there's the funny/sad saga of J

Scene from Baghead. Photo: Jen Tracy Duplass
ake, the self-professed "band nerd" who is so painfully out of social synch that he lines up dates three weeks in advance. When he finally gets a girl to a dance, he gets cold feet and ends up leaving the party alone and humiliated.

Burstein compiled exhaustive 24/7 coverage of her subjects that makes none of her dark moments feel like cheap shots. As in her pioneering amateur-boxing doc On the Ropes, she's scrupulous to be honest but fair with her real-life characters. An epilogue updates us on the kids' post-Warsaw fate, giving Megan and Mitch, in particular, a chance to make a stab at redemption.

Baghead lives

Fans of the off-beat road comedy The Puffy Chair will be pleased to know that Jay and Mark Duplass, the Cajun brother duo spearheading the so-called mumblecore movement of low-budget filmmakers, are back. In Baghead, the brothers stick four friends in a backwoods cabin aiming to write the great indie script that will erase the wannabe label from their floundering acting careers.

When we first spy them, Matt (Ross Partridge), Chad (Steve Zissis), Catherine (Elise Muller) and Michelle (Greta Gerwig) are cooing over a hot new director at a post-screening Q&A, which the Duplass brothers treat with the same respect the Marx Brothers displayed towards grand opera.

Once they're up at the cabin, the friendships start to unravel. Chad confesses to Matt his desire to make it with Michelle, begging his handsome friend to write them a love scene, and for Matt to stop putting the moves on Michelle. "I can't compete — you've got Elvis hair." Early on, we detect a sexual tension between the guys,   which escalates when the film-within-a-film becomes a surreal parody of The Blair Witch Project. Then the horror-film spoof starts to generate some genuine suspense as the characters find themselves stalked by a menacing male wearing a brown-paper bag.

Baghead will divide filmgoers. While some will be put off by its artsy pretensions, many will appreciate the fine line it walks between sexual tensions gone horribly awry and an odd kind of dread without gore or CGI. Baghead is 80 minutes of silliness that wraps unexpectedly with two pals reconnecting in a hospital bed.

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