All that changed when a documentary called "American Teen" screened Saturday. It was clear that the film had generated interest by the flashes of blue light in the audience, as agents and acquisitions folks frantically texted their business affairs departments to start negotiations.
Miramax and Fox Searchlight were among those in the early bidding, but they dropped out as the sales price for North American rights climbed toward $2 million. No deal had been closed by Sunday afternoon, but a potential sale (other interested parties included Paramount Vantage) was expected today.
This isn't Burstein's first successful foray at Sundance. Her last documentary, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," premiered at Sundance in 2002 and went on to be a commercial and critical success.
To make "American Teen," she spent the 2005-06 school year shooting footage of four seniors at Warsaw Community High School in Indiana. She scouted 10 different high schools in three states before setting up camp in the Midwest.
"I wanted a town, with just one high school, that was economically mixed," says Burstein, who then interviewed all of Warsaw's incoming seniors for 20 minutes each before selecting her stars. "I just picked people that I really liked."
In the end, she chose the quintessential archetypes that used to collide in every John Hughes film. There's the band geek named Jake whose acne flares with each romantic rejection and the jock, Colin, who is as affable as a golden Lab. Hannah is the quirky Molly Ringwald-esque misfit with dreams of becoming a film director, and the rich, blond queen bee named Megan wages psychological warfare on anyone who threatens her power.
"I was compelled by how articulate they were," Burstein says of her subjects. Referring to Jake, who muses optimistically on scaling the social food chain, she adds: "He's so self-aware and brutally honest about himself."
For the 37-year-old Burstein, gaining the teens' trust took a few months. "They're very protective of their lives and suspicious of adults," she says. Working with one camera crew, she maintained daily contact with the four students to stay abreast of their lives. "I was constantly on call, texting and i-chatting. I am now very technologically savvy."
At the packed premiere on Saturday, "American Teen" played like a rowdy high school football game. The audience cheered and hissed but got the biggest kick out of Hannah's take on the Golden State.
"If I had to imagine a cool place, it would be California," she says dreamily. "They have beaches and mountains and casinos." She went on to conclude: "Anywhere where Arnold Schwarzenegger can be governor is [messed] up."
It's evident that Burstein, who went to high school in Buffalo, N.Y., identified with the artsy outcast. "I started out in high school like Megan and was popular," she recalls. "But then I went to Spain for a year and came back with a pink mohawk, so I was more like Hannah."
In "The Kid Stays in the Picture," Burstein used photo animation to flesh out the life of flamboyant Hollywood producer Robert Evans. This time around, she worked with Blacklist to create vivid and hilarious animation sequences that conveyed the fantasy lives of each teen. The end results are poignant, though predictable: The geek gets the girl; the jock scores the winning shot.
"You don't get that wish fulfillment in real life," says Burstein of the animated vignettes. The most haunting sketch -- which feels like a macabre take on "Alice in Wonderland" -- reveals Hannah's fear that she will inherit her mother's mental illness. "I spent a lot of time talking to them about their secret fears and fantasies."
In the final sequence of "American Teen," reality prevails as we see each student heading off to tackle adulthood. The band geek muses on how he might reinvent himself at his new school -- "I could be Mr. Muscles and work out all the time," he says with a laugh.
The jock, Colin, finally gets his father's approval, while Hannah the misfit is seen grinning blissfully with the Golden Gate Bridge resplendent in the background. Unlike the outcome in "Hoop Dreams," the teens in this movie actually achieve their dreams. Clearly, this buoyant finish is part of the documentary's appeal.
In some ways, the film feels as choreographed as an episode of "The Hills." The popular girl predictably reigns like a despot and turns on her best friend. The jock's father, an Elvis impersonator who hoped to play pro ball back in the day, pressures his son to make 12 rebounds at the big game. Around Park City, there have been whispers that Burstein may have scripted the doc.
"It's not scripted, and I didn't make any arrangements with the kids to act a certain way," says Burstein, who shot 1,000 hours of footage. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but it plays like fiction because it's so moving. Maybe it speaks to the polish of the film."
Or to the fact that Hollywood truly is a lot like high school.