“Bustin’ Out,” episode six of R.J. Cutler’s breakthrough reality TV series American High, opens on 17-year-old Morgan Moss pointing a pistol at his mother’s head and barking demands: “Say what a nice child I am on camera. Now.” It’s a chilling moment, despite the fact that the pistol in question fires only paintballs, and despite the knowledge (if one has followed the show at all sequentially) that the Moss family is a high-functioning team of caring individuals–especially when it comes to dealing with screwball Morgan.
Post-Columbine America has every right to be sensitive when the topic turns to teenagers. Sociologists inform us that the “generation gap”–the psychodemographic rift that was assigned a name in the mid-1960s–is wider than ever. Blame Sony PlayStation and Eminem and Maxim. Blame the presence of narcotics in our schoolyards. Blame, as former President Clinton did at last May’s White House Conference on Teenagers, the fact that families don’t sit down to dinner together anymore–at least not often enough to countervail the influence of toxic culture. Or that when they do sit down to dinner (according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation), two-thirds of families with school-age children leave the television on.
This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. This summer PBS is rebroadcasting American High in its entirety, giving teens, parents of teens and our largely teenophobic population a second chance to grapple with and maybe even understand one another better, through the potent (at least in this case) medium of documentary TV.
American High is an obsessive chronicle of the lives of fourteen upperclassmen, mostly seniors–jocks and band geeks, a pierced punk rocker, a couple of delinquents by default, no cheerleaders–at suburban Chicago’s Highland Park High School. Executive producer Cutler chose Highland Park for its receptivity to his vision for the project, which included not only an entire academic year of on-site filming but an addition to the school’s curriculum: A video-diary class taught by producer Jonathan Mednick. The 800 hours of self-reflexive footage shot by Mednick’s chosen students, plus an additional 2,000 hours (documenting everything from earnest powwows in the girls’ room to out-of-control keggers to senior prom) shot by Cutler and his crew, are the raw material for American High.
It’s hard to imagine the blood, sweat and tears it must have taken to cut this quantity of tape into thirteen twenty-two-minute episodes. But Cutler managed it. Superbly. The end result is a multifarious collection of coming-into-adulthood stories that rub shoulders with one another and trip gamely over one another’s limbs as they unfold side by side, week after week. Each story is, in and of itself, a vivid and affecting slice of life-on-the-verge. Shuffled together, they form a discursive epic of both the inner and outer struggle of the Misunderstood American Teen.