DVD reviews: American Teen and Man On Wire

I know Jake Tusing. In many ways, I was Jake Tusing. While taking in Nanette Burstein’s documentary American Teen, the parallels piled up:

  • regrettable hairstyles
  • worse complexions
  • odd mix of self-awareness and self-pity
  • A to-do list that included: 1) Find girlfriend, 2) ________, 3) Achieve total happiness

Of course, there are differences. Whereas he brought flowers to the door of a new freshman in the band, I bought Valentine’s candies and set them down on a girl’s desk (passively hoping for the best). But let’s just say there were uncomfortable moments of recollection during the movie’s 100-minute runtime. And while highlighting such a character might bypass my critical eye \ and cozy up near some nostalgic soft spot, the film’s intimate portrayal of “normal” teen life in Warsaw, Indiana uncovers more substance than a dozen fictional portrayals of the same experience. The result? A satisfying documentary with every main character revealing his or her strengths and flaws, giving us a movie where finding the latter proves much more difficult.

Burstein used archival footage and some stylistic flourishes to turn The Kid Stays In the Picture into a fascinating, informative cocktail of a documentary. Press coverage of Teen indicates she did her homework to find the right blend of Midwestern lives, and the results show subjects who let go of their camera awareness while engaged in the drama of senior year. One’s eye obviously will focus on the artistic interludes that represent the protagonists’ stated dreams, and they certainly provide a jolt of storytelling substance. But the best moments are clear-eyed and without filter. For our friend Jake, that means quickly finding out that having a girlfriend doesn’t mean much when there is no relationship to enjoy. Oh, and having said girlfriend sneak out on Jake for a swimming pool rendezvous.

Each archetypical character (“the queen bee,” “the outcast”) undergoes a similar adventure under the microscope that complicates our feelings toward them as a viewer. Megan mixes her influence and vindictiveness into toxic blends, but we’re there when we see her break down at the sight of a Notre Dame acceptance letter. (Making a Golden Domer sympathetic is the forgotten 13th Labour of Hercules.) Colin’s basketball hopes get crushed under the weight of expectations and an uncertain post-high school future, but he deals with it by passing the rock less often than Eddie House. And Hannah, the wild child too big for the confines of a small town, emerges from a bad family situation to find strength … except when she’s heartbroken and won’t go to school for days on end.

The universal nature of these kids and their situation allows for the ambitious title, even if the scene scarcely resembles that of the inner-city Baltimore classroom Prez presides over on HBO’s The Wire. We don’t get jags into No Child Left Behind, or school funding reform or even a Juno-type unexpected pregnancy. And a loaf of bread might feature more diversity in color than the student body shown in this film. My feeling, though, is that those issues exist somewhere just beyond the reach of these cameras, and zooming out any more would turn the film into a morass of big themes and ideas that just wouldn’t be sustainable.

But believe me when I tell you that these complexities can appeal to just about anybody, whatever nebulous archetype you inhabited from the years of 14 to 18. But don’t fret, Jake, not all of us end up writing blog reviews 10 years after graduation. I’m rooting for you.

And if Jake was anything like me in grade school, he probably holds on to some hazy memory of opening up a textbook or encyclopedia and spying a black-clad daredevil walking between the World Trade Center towers. The whole image blew my small-town-in-Illinois, cable-less mind: New York City, skyscrapers and death-defying stunts all seemed so far away.

Man on Wire brings that event into focus with a lyrical beauty, propelled by the romantic mind of featured subject Philippe Petit. The documentary plays with the story, teasing some historical re-enactment and a jumbled timeline that offers glimpses of important characters before a proper introduction. In lesser hands, this would make for a confusing documentary trying to obscure its lack of good source material. Director James Marsh knows, however, he can get away with these flights of fancy when just sitting Petit down and allowing him to tell his story engages the audience so thoroughly.

The story itself seems like it comes from another time (a feeling somewhat consistant for me whenever encountering New York in the 1970s). Petit builds up his public performances, from slight of hand to small-scale tightrope demonstrations, with an artist’s flair perfectly suited for description in the French language. He accumulates assistants and hangers-on, who help him with these odd events. In present-day interviews, just about all of them look back with an amazed half-smile when traveling back to the days of 1974 – none more so than onetime Petit paramour Annie Allix. They fill in some of the gaps of the story, which allows for the nuts-and-bolts logistics of scoping out these man-made behemoths and setting up this spectacle.

But what I like most about it, even more than the home video footage of this amazing skill in practice, is its rejection of “Why?” Given that this is one of the five W’s of proper journalism, it’s probably not a great thing to shout from the rooftops. But for something such as this, no answer really satisfies the question. Petit says as much in the movie when explaining why he started walking the tightrope in the first place. He ended up there, in perfect balance, and kept testing himself to see how amazing the act could get. Nobody featured in the film really knows “why,” and you’ll forget you asked it at all when Petit feels his way to his spot in history.

About The Author


I am a current web designer, former newspaper editor and forever in blue jeans. As you can see, my pun vocabulary extends much longer than my lifespan.

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01 2009

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