This lost documentary is the ultimate American teen film

A Finnish teenager in the 80s sums up everything that’s messed up about high school

In 1984, filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld took a skeleton camera crew into your average American high school. There, he spent the entire year dipping in and out of surf classes, pep rallies, and legacy-making keg parties. These teens were experts in teased hair, fluoro daywear and necking back a Bud; this was the real life Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The plan for the film was simply to follow a group of students from the first day of school to graduation. Only three months into filming, Rosenfeld found his lead: Finnish exchange student Rikki Rauhala. Rauhala became the film’s narrator, that all-access pass mainlining 80s high school culture through an outsider’s POV. She was the “surrogate voice”, according to Rosenfeld, that could say the things he couldn’t. Plus, she was charming as hell.

The documentary was released in 1986 to favourable reviews, but only played a handful of times on public access station PBS. “A few hundred, maybe a couple thousand people have seen this film,” admits Rosenfeld. In fact, the film was largely forgotten up until it was recently rediscovered gathering dust in the director’s storage unit.

“I keep a storage facility and in the corner of the facility was this old film that I made that was 16mm. One day I walked in there looking for some old photography stuff that I’ve done, and I looked at the corner and I started pulling out reviews and things from the film and one of them said, ‘These are the children who will guide America into the 21st century,’ and I said, ‘Wow. Well, I’m in the 21st century now so I wonder if that’s true.’”

Realising the 30th anniversary was edging up on him, and armed with a genuine curiosity of how these students navigated the last three decades, Rosenfeld decided to revisit the film’s main cast to see what had become of them. The result? All American High Revisited – a nostalgia-inducing time capsule that trades on the social currency of our formative years.

The documentary is literally a slice of life, and provides an unfiltered glimpse into the attitudes and behaviours of the early 80s high schooler. There were cliques, raves and heartbreaks – and watching it will make you want to time warp back to senior year. So what’s changed in the intervening decades? Finnish exchange student Rikki Rauhala and the film’s director, Keva Rosenfeld, lay it all out.

AMERICANS WERE A BIT FRIGID BACK THEN

Rikki Rauhala: “Sometimes I’ve thought, ‘Was I just early, was it really like that?’ But after filming for Revisited there was one guy who used to be in the same school as me at that time and he was an exchange student as well. He said that his experience was exactly the same, that in Finland the attitude was more natural; maybe it’s more typically European. In America, everyone was talking about ‘How I kissed’ and ‘How I made out with that person’ but in reality they didn’t even touch anybody. They were all talk, no action whereas in Finland if you talk, you also act.”

“What really struck me was that scene where they’re talking about gun control and I’m going, ‘This debate is exactly the same!’” – Keva Rosenfeld

DEBATES ON GUN CONTROL HAVEN’T CHANGED ALL THAT MUCH

Keva Rosenfeld: “What really struck me when I finally saw it again with an audience, was that scene where they’re talking about gun control and I’m going, ‘This debate is exactly the same!’ It was almost tragic, we haven’t moved an inch from that conversation. It made me think how much is the same and how much is different from this culture of being a teenager.

“If there wasn’t a wake-up call from last week’s shooting in Charleston… I think it’s so ingrained in American culture, this division. Every election is only decided by 6 or 7 per cent anyway, so it’s a divided country, it’s always been a divided country. It was a little bleak when I saw that; I was a little defeated. We’re still having this conversation? Although there was a girl in the film, she was in that conversation and she’s completely changed her point of view in terms of her politics.”

THE WHIPPED CREAM PARTIES WERE WILD

Rikki Rauhala: “Do you ever remember anything from fun parties? Even the next day or a week after? (laughs) It was so much fun I don’t remember anything. The big parties in the film were just three or four big ones that I went to. But there was a lot of throwing whipped cream in faces. They had whipped cream parties, I think that is funny (laughs).”

Keva Rosenfeld: “We shot more than you saw. We shot a lot of parties. I didn’t really become a party-going guy but we were close enough in age to (the teens) to be like their older brother. I had a producing partner who was my girlfriend at the time. We just immersed ourselves in that world. In a recent screening of the film, a lot of those kids showed up and I asked them afterwards, ‘Listen, did we misrepresent you? Tell me if we represented your high school experience correctly or exaggerated the social aspects. And all of them across the board said, ‘(What you captured) is just the tip of the iceberg.’ It was parties like that every weekend. I felt vindicated, like I did OK by them 'cos you just skimmed the surface of the social stuff that was going on. They told me a lot of stories that were much, much more wild that what you see in that movie.”

All American High Revisited is out in cinemas and available digitally on July 3