Grade: B

In what’s often called a golden age of documentaries, this effort by Nanette Burstein (known for “On the Ropes,” which might be called a pugilistic version of “Hoop Dreams,” from 1999, and the 2002 autobiographical piece on Robert Evans, “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) may not merit anything above the silver standard, but it’s still enjoyable if hardly profound. “American Teen” follows a group of high school students in Warsaw, Indiana, over the course of their senior year, and while the result may be no more revealing than similar television treatments of kids—and has been molded so smoothly as to sometimes seem staged—it’s an engaging portrait.

The five subjects have been carefully chosen to offer a cross-section not of the country as a whole, but of distinctly white-bread middle America. One is Colin Clemens, the nice-guy, strong-jawed basketball star whose college prospects, as his Elvis-impersonating father informs him, is really dependent on his leading the team to a strong season. Another is class princess Megan Krizmanich, a pretty blonde with a nasty streak and a tendency to catty behavior who’s feeling family pressure to get into Notre Dame. The third is Jake Tusing, a self-described band geek devoted to video games but determined finally to get a girlfriend. A second outsider, Hannah Bailey, is a rebel with artistic inclinations who wants desperately to go to California to become a filmmaker but finds her very graduation threatened when she has a meltdown after breaking up with her boyfriend. She rallies, though, and is romanced by another basketball player, Mitch Reinholt, a genuinely likable guy who finds his own social standing endangered by his relationship with her.

Burstein’s film follows this quintet through the school year, covering Hannah’s ups and downs, Colin’s attempts to maintain his poise as the team sputters, Jake’s struggle to overcome his lack of confidence, and Mitch’s effort to resist pressure from his friends to drop Hannah. Meanwhile Megan’s desire to control things leads her to some really cruel conduct (like targeting a fellow student for a technology attack) and gets her into problems with the school administration, though some background information is included that helps to explain her shrewish attitude.

“American Teen” isn’t simply about these five, of course. Other students make occasional appearances, sometimes to nice effect (Hannah’s best pal) and sometimes not (the guy who abruptly dumps her), and so do the students’ parents, mostly in not too flattering a light (especially Hannah’s mother, a mentally troubled woman who’s brutally unsupportive of her daughter’s dreams, though Jake’s mother is a pleasant contrast). They all provide context for the quintet’s stories, though like the stories themselves it often comes across as very conveniently cut-and-dried.

In fact, so perfectly timed are the dramatic twists, so felicitous the presence of the crew at the most important moments, and so remarkably articulate the youngsters in describing their feelings in interviews that “American Teen” sometimes feels not fully off-the-cuff. That may be entirely unfair; perhaps Burstein (and her camera team of Laela Kilbourn, Wolfgang Held and Robert Hanna) were just amazingly lucky, and she and her co-editors (Mary Manhardt and Tom Haneke) extraordinarily skillful. But the artificiality is certainly exacerbated by the periodic use of various styles of animation to reflect the subjects’ very different inner lives, and of a carefully selected set of pop songs to italicize big moments.

But though Burstein’s technique gives a slick reality-TV feel to the film, making it seem more a surface treatment of its subject rather than a probing look at the problems high school kids face nowadays, “American Teen,” while not unlike what we’ve seen before on the screen and the tube, nonetheless makes for an entertaining ninety-five minutes, even if it might not stay with you very long.