“It was a very different lifestyle for me,” New York documentary filmmaker Nanette Burstein remarked during a recent Dallas interview of living in Warsaw, Indiana for nine months during 2005-2006 making “American Teen,” a camera’s-eye view of four students at the local high school over the course of their senior year. “It’s in northeastern Indiana, forty-five minutes from Fort Wayne, which is the closest big city.” She paused for a moment and added, “Well, it’s not really a big city. But it has a mall in it.”

The picture’s poster is modeled after the one for John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” and it does focus on students whom Burstein herself described as archetypes—a jock, a princess, a geek, and a rebel (who links up with a fifth student who could be identified as a heartthrob). But her intention was different from that behind the run-of-the-mill teen movies and reality shows so prevalent nowadays.

“There are a lot of television programs and movies about teenagers,” Burstein said of her motivation to make the film. “But they tend to be so superficial. People say, why would you want to make this when there are so many movies out there about teenagers? The frustration for me was that these films—they’re really aimed at twelve-year olds, and everything turns out perfect in the end. It’s not like life. The cliches are even more cliches than they are normally. And then you have these reality shows that are big, and often about the wealthiest segments of the population. So despite the plethora of material about young people, most of it, I felt, was not very honest.”

So Burstein set about finding a town and a school right for the project she had in mind. “I wanted to set the film in rural America, which is part of this country” but too often ignored, she said. “There’s a timelessness about it. A lot of news stories exaggerate the most extreme cases of teenagers, and we think of that as the norm. Whereas in a huge part of the country, that’s not the case at all. And I wanted it to be in a town that had only one high school, because I thought there’d be more social pressure that way. So you could really get to the heart of what teenagers face as far as peer pressure and feeling you have to fit in and mold their personalities in a certain way. And I wanted it to be economically mixed—I didn’t want a town that was just rich or just poor or just middle-class, but was across-the-board. I was hoping for racial diversity, but found that hard to find in small towns.

“So I was looking on the Internet to find all these different demographics and then called high schools that fit them—hundreds of them, in four different states. And I found ten schools that were open to me shooting the film [there], and I went to each of them and interviewed the incoming seniors that were interested in the process, and the number of good stories I could find in one place would dictate where I went. And Warsaw had the best stories.”

If you visit Facebook, Burstein added, you can understand her choice. “There are the initial interviews that I did with the kids who are in the film,” she said—who were among the 35% or so of the class who (along with their parents) agreed to participate if selected. “And you can see it even then—how funny they are, and how self-aware they are at that age, how precocious they were—which surprised me. But at the same time they were just as vulnerable as any other teenager. But their ability to see it and communicate it seemed much more self-aware than I was at that age.

“In the beginning, I was filming more than these five,” she continued. “Probably about ten. But within a couple of months I narrowed it down to these five. It became clear that either the story that I thought I was following with the other kids didn’t really amount to much, or it was clear that they weren’t going to feel comfortable on camera or reveal themselves honestly.”

Not so with the teens Burstein eventually focused on. “There are a lot of times I was around them when I wouldn’t have the camera there, so I could compare their behavior in different instances,” she said. “And I really think they felt very comfortable on camera. If anything, especially at the beginning of the year, there was more of a [self-]censorship thing rather than perhaps acting up for the camera, saying, ‘Oh, we need to create some kind of drama because they’re filming me.’ They didn’t need to do that, because they’re high school kids and they have it already! I’m sure that my presence, being their friend and inserted in their life, had some kind of influence. But I’m not sure that the camera did so much.”

Initially Burstein worked with a single camera crew, occasionally going out herself with a second, smaller camera for more coverage. Later in the year, she added a second full crew, and for major events—basketball games, prom—two more. The coverage helped her catch important moments (though, as she admitted, “sometimes it’s just luck”). And she interviewed each student one-on-one every month to record what they were feeling and how they saw themselves. By graduation day she had a thousand hours of film to be whittled down to feature length.

“One of the things I did was to edit each story separately at first, to really get to the heart of what each of their own journeys was, what they were yearning for—to really try to narrow down the scope to what’s pertinent to the most important part of who they are,” Burstein said of her method. “I’m picking the most compelling interview quotes from them and spending hundreds of hours [putting them together]. Then we started interweaving them and really finding how to make the theme come out. How do I have one story complement the others? It took me a year to do. It wasn’t a quick process.”

But Burstein hopes that it’s one that viewers will find genuinely revealing, as most teen movies and television shows are not. “What I really strove to do,” she said, “and I hope that the film accomplishes this, was to really capture that time in your life when you felt so insecure—with the vulnerability, and the need to fit in, and trying to figure out your identity, and the pressure from your parents and your peers.

“It’s something that happens in every generation. That’s what makes it so relatable.”