'American Teen' is a fair portrayal

It's sort of like "The O.C." or "The Hills" or an updated John Hughes movie. Except Sundance Film Festival favorite "American Teen" seems very real, and that makes all the difference.

Innovative documentarian Nanette Burstein spent senior year with a bunch of kids in Warsaw, Ind., gradually gaining their trust and getting them to shed most of their natural camera shyness.

The result, while cannily crafted and edited for maximum comic and dramatic impact, nonetheless presents each individual intimately and in a fair light. These teens have their good sides and bad, problems both genuinely serious and utterly in their own imaginations, distinctive humors, strengths and weaknesses. We really see them growing into the adults they'll probably become. The mission, well-accomplished, was to single out certain archetypes, then discover what made them non-stereotypical.

Arty misfit Hannah Bailey wants to leave the one-horse town but is crippled by fears she may inherit her mother's mental instability and is disconcerted further by an unlikely romance.

Basketball star Colin Clemens knows that local hero status is one thing, but earning a scholarship is a life-or-death matter and not as easy as it may seem.

Doctor's daughter Megan Krizmanich is popular and manipulative and can be a mean girl, but she also has gigantic family expectations to live up to.

Jake Tusing is, well, pretty much your total geek, but his efforts to improve himself and maybe get a date someday are completely persuasive.

Then there's hot guy Mitch Reinholt, who can be sweet or thoughtlessly cruel, an independent thinker and easily peer-pressured.

Burstein not only captures these guys at their most confessional and unguarded, she gets the context of their friendships, families and larger social circles right as well. It's all terribly slick, which could be perceived as a problem in documentary terms. But "American Teen's" devotion to entertainment value is tempered by a certain scrupulousness.

Personal as it gets, the PG-13 film never seems sensationalized or exploitative or dumbed-down ... or scripted, which distinguishes it from most shows about young people, whether they claim to be real or not.

"American Teen" is in limited release. It starts Friday in Bay Area theaters including Century San Francisco Centre 9 and the California Theatre in Berkeley.