With “Teenage,” documentarian Matt Wolf has assembled an impressive array of footage, facts, and photos to nimbly tell the pre-history of teenagers. Adapting Jon Savage’s 2007 book, “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture,” Wolf shrewdly interweaves four narrators as various storylines chronicle how teenagers in the U.S., UK, and Germany developed socially, culturally, and politically between 1904 and 1945.
A pre-credit sequence shows “typical” American teenagers on a school campus. Various unidentified teens discuss their ambitions, and provide remarks about social and cultural change, as well as clothes, and records. One emphasizes that his parents bug him. Wolf artfully shows how these teenagers came to be. Teenagers were, in fact, a “wartime invention.” They chose to define themselves, rather than let adults do it for them.
Seamlessly edited and evocatively scored by Bradford Cox (of the band Deerhunter), Teenage practically spellbinds viewers as eloquent voice-overs by Ben Whishaw, Jena Malone, and other narrators compliment images of teenagers unspooling on screen. This documentary is not a dry, academic history of youth culture, but rather a vibrant political statement that shows the powerful force of teenagers and their ability to foment social, cultural, and political change.
The early episodes in the film set the tone of how teenagers were difficult to control. They wanted freedoms adults were reluctant to provide. When Draconian child labor conditions were repealed, youth were given a “second stage of life”: adolescence. But, as “Teenage” shows — using amusing footage of kids playing pranks and thieving — they quickly become hooligans and troublemakers. So the Boy Scouts were created as a “solution to the problem of youth” to teach patriotism, courage, and self-reliance. As youth became fit, healthy soldiers, who prepared for war, they developed feelings of adulthood.
Similar programs were replicated in Britain and Germany, and Wolf deftly shows the parallels while also exploring the spread of American culture (e.g., jazz music) in Europe. Charting this duality is key to the film’s success. The way youth responded to war and music echo throughout. Wolf juxtaposes the disturbing image of a twitching, shell-shocked soldier with a happy dancing flapper girl, beautifully illustrates how youth want to forget their troubles and return to innocence.
But the poignant narrations in “Teenage” help convey key emotional scenes. While the German girl (voiced by Julia Hummer) mourns for her brother who died in the war, the moment carries significant weight. Similarly, a line spoken by Jena Malone that articulates the difference between teens and adults in the Flapper era segment also resonates: “Our world is speedy, and they are old.”
Wolf’s judicious selection of clips to illustrate each decade indicates his ability to tell this story with wit and affection. A movie made in 1928 by Oswald Mosley featuring Cecil Beaton in drag as “The Madame” introduces the Bright Young People, which leads to a fascinating story about Brenda Dean Paul (Leah Hennessey in recreation scenes), who became the “first junkie,” and famous from scandals, drug busts, and a prison term.
Dean is seen as a character representative of flaming youth that crashes and burns. Wolf, of course, uses her story as a segue into a conversation surrounding the stock market crash and the Great Depression that never feels forced. In fact, it acts as a terrific transition for the next chapter, the rise of the Hitler Youth and Melita Machmann’s (Ivy Blackshire) story. Melita talks about the appeal of the Hitler Youth and its competitions and camping trips as well as the happy feelings she experienced at the time. It is this teenager’s sense of belonging and her part in helping shape the future that “Teenage” emphasizes throughout.
While Melita’s views change as the Nazis come to power, and she talks about “switching off her private feelings,” the film generates emotion, and connects to the story of another rebel, Tommie Scheel, one of the German Swing Kids, who used American music as a form of political protest, not unlike the Jitterbugs in a later episode in Teenage.
Wolf makes his 77-minute documentary swing, too, as it briskly tells these and other fascinating stories, like Warren Wall (Malik Peters), who wants to be the first African American Eagle Scout. If some of the later anecdotes —the Harlem and Zoot Suit Riots, and tales of juvenile delinquency (marijuana use!) — do not get fully explored, this is a minor quibble.
Wolf ends “Teenage” with a visual recitation of the “Teen-Age Bill of Rights” from the 1945 New York Times. He also showcases images of teenagers from 1945 onward, particularly from the punk movement. It is both a brilliant celebration of his subject and a thumb in the viewer’s eye as to what teenagers have become.
Criticwire Grade: A-