Thoughts on a True/False Film: American Teen

Man, senior year of high school. What a great time in life, right? You are at the top of the “food chain” in your school, you seemingly have your whole life ahead of you, and, best of all, your parents are still paying for everything and fixing all your meals. At the same time, you might say the opposite. Man, senior year of high school. Nine months of depressing break-ups, messy friendships and backstabbing, anxiety about prom, pressure to get into certain colleges or to get scholarships, and all the other standard drama in high school. That’s the tension drawn in American Teen, one of the highly touted documentaries of True/False Film Fest this past weekend. Before I tell you why I think this film is worth watching (don’t worry I won’t give anything away), here’s a brief synopsis from the T/F website:

In American Teen, Nanette Burstein…follows four John Hughes archetypes — the beauty queen, the band nerd, the popular jock and the lovable basket case — through a senior year at a Midwestern high school…Though each character belongs to a completely different caste, under Burstein’s honest lens, all of them display an understandable angst — their futures are terrifyingly unwritten. American Teen‘s glossy visual style has drawn comparisons to MTV reality shows, but its core is every bit as thorough and insightful as a Ken Burns epic. Just like its complex characters, American Teen may appear to be one thing at first glance, but beneath the surface seethes the complicated culture of contemporary youth.

Nathan and I went to see this film on Friday night at the Blue Note. What a range of emotions and memories it stirred in me. I found myself laughing, fascinated, cringing, saddened, and embarrassed for the students at different times throughout the story. Although there are a few scenes that felt a bit contrived to me, overall the film is well done and told in a creative, captivating way. I personally think a viewing is worth your time, although just know that it contains some very “real” language and sexual content.

Here is why I personally thought it was a helpful film to watch.

1) American Teen reminded me of how much God has changed my life and increasingly given me wisdom since high school. As much as I hate to admit it, I saw myself in much of the pathetic, embarrassing conversations, situations, and decisions taking place in the student body from Warsaw, Indiana. Several times throughout the film I’d accusingly think, “What an idiot! Why are you doing that?” And, yet suddenly I’d remember, “Oh my gosh, I did the same thing just about 10 years ago!” What grace God has shown in guiding me toward Himself since then! This movie also reminded me of something else, though. Like the “American Teens” on screen, I still struggle with similar sins–I, too, long for the approval of people (i.e. vying for popularity), have to fight against gossip, and try to find my fulfillment in things other than God. I haven’t “arrived” since high school. I still need God’s grace and wisdom today. So, I hope this film—no matter what your experience—will also encourage you to remember how far God has brought you but also remind you of your continual need for His grace and wisdom.

2) American Teen once again set before me the incredible need that high school students have for the Gospel and guidance from wiser, older people. High school is a time of figuring out who we are, what our values are, who and/or what is really important, and what we want to do with the rest of our lives. Some of the decisions made during this time in our lives can impact the rest of our years here on earth and, quite frankly, our eternity. Those decisions include things like who we date, whether or not we decide to enter into sexual relationships, who our friends are, where we decide to go to college, whether or not we work hard in school, and whether or not we consider God to be part of our lives or not.

As I watched the students in this film deal with such issues as the pressures of parents and peers, the emotions of being “used” in a sexual relationship, the insecurities of “not fitting in” socially, and the impact of slander, two things came to mind. The first is the importance of supporting ministry to high school students in our church and community. The Crossing’s student ministry (which I had the privilege of being a part of for six years) and our partner ministries like K-Life, Young Life, and FCA play such an incredibly vital role during this “fork in the path” time in students’ lives. They give these students hope that there is much more to this life than the dead ends of high school struggles. They offer them the life that truly satisfies in Christ. Let’s remember to pray for and encourage the volunteers, staff and students involved in these ministries.

The second thing that came to mind is the impact that good, wise, godly parenting can make in the lives of high school students. Often the students that were doing the best spiritually in our student ministry were those who valued the opinions of their parents and wanted to be around them. They trusted their parents more than their peers. I’m praying even now that God would give Nathan and me the grace and wisdom to relate to and guide our 1-year-old so that he can navigate the flood waters of the teen years. I want to work hard to demonstrate a life centered on Christ, his grace, Biblical values and the great blessings that come from those things. For that, I know we’ll need God’s guidance and wisdom…because I know we are certainly not capable of parenting in that way on our own merits!

As I just mentioned, one of the advantages of working with students at The Crossing for so many years is that I got to see kids who did “get” the importance of following Christ and trusting in Him in high school. Of course, they had struggles, too. No one is perfect after all. But, their lives were usually far different than those of many of their peers. What was the common denominators in these Christian kids’ lives? 1) They were actively involved in a Christian community (i.e. K-Life, The Crossing, Young Life); and 2) They often (not always) had parents who were wisely guiding them and demonstrating to them the blessings of a life lived for Christ.

My kudos to Nanette Burstein for this eye-opening film. I hope that American Teen will be an encouragement and resource to you in your faith, your support of student ministry, and/or your parenting.

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