The first screening I attend at Sundance is a real happening. Saturday afternoon’s premiere of American Teen is filmmaker Nanette Burstein‘s return to Sundance after six years. (Burstein had previously produced The Kid Stays in the Picture, about Paramount producer Robert Evans, which was at Sundance in 2002.)

For American Teen, Burstein spent a year with the kids of a high school in Warsaw, Indiana. Festival programmer John Cooper introduced Burstein as one of our great documentarians who’s redefining the genre. The theater was packed and very excited. It’s great to see that there’s finally a documentary that adds a complex wrinkle to all the teenage junk we can catch 24/7 in reality television land. American Teen is really special: it intimately captures the lives of these kid and then goes a step further by animating their inner lives with some cutting edge animation.

Burstein and teens from American Teen at Sundance

Filmmaker Nanette Burstein (far right) and teens from American Teen at Sundance

It seems like everyone was there — Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice; Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics; and head of U.S. Theatrical for ThinkFilm, Mark Urman, among others. I can’t say exactly when documentaries started pulling in all the top dogs of Indiewood, but it’s happening in full effect this year.

I spoke with Urman before the movie started and he told me he was excited for it, but he was still humming over Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which he said was fantastic. He indicated, however, that he probably wouldn’t be buying its domestic rights for ThinkFilm. “It’s complicated,” he said. Sure enough, HBO announced this morning that they purchased the rights to the film, which examines the Polanski’s sex scandal involving a young girl that occurred thirty years ago.

So, back to the American Teen screening. The lights went down and the movie began. It was especially amusing to watch the lives of these kids — sex, zits and all — unfold on screen as a mother and teenage daughter sitting in front of me repeatedly whispered to each other, aghast and amused at the intimate details revealed in the film.

When the credits rolled, the crowd justifiably went nuts, hooting and hollering. Burstein came up and answered questions with the kids from the film. The highlight was the “geek” in the group, who admitted to not having had a date in the year and a half since the film was shot. “That’ll change!” yelled one woman in the crowd to the cheers of the audience. I’m sure these kids will be getting a good/weird taste of celebrity in the days to come.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen