Directed by: Matt Wolf.
Written by: Jon Savage and Matt Wolf.
In 2014, we live in a culture that is largely dominated by teenagers. Many of the movies and TV shows we watch, music we hear on the radio, and technology we utilize are aimed at teenagers, who become early adopters, until the rest of us catch up with them. What makes Matt Wolf’s documentary Teenage fascinating then is that it tracks the early years of the 20th Century, when the concept of bring a teenager – and that being different from childhood or adulthood – was first formed. The film goes from 1904 – when children were pretty much expected to go to work at the age of 12 in factories and mines, through the introduction of child labor laws through many other youth fads and their growing independence. It also makes it clear that throughout these years, the adult world sought to crush these movements and these teenagers – using them to form the world that the adults want, not the ones the teenagers want – and punishing those who don’t toe the line.
The film is basically a 78 minute montage – mixing archival footage, with faux archival footage, which is often so convincing that you cannot tell what’s real and what’s staged. He uses five narrators – Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich, Jessie Usher and Julia Hummer who read period diaries of various people to show how things progressed – in American, England and Germany. This limits the scope of the movie to those three countries, but it’s effective. Much of what they read show the teenagers as idealists, who are slowly beaten down by the system and the adults. From Jitterbugging to the Hitler Youth, and everything in between, the film documents what teenagers started, and how it worked.
It is a fascinating documentary – and very well made by Wolf, and has an interesting central concept. Strangely though, the film does seemed both rush – covered more than 40 years in less than 80 minutes – and yet somewhat slow. Because the film doesn’t spend too long on any one character, and instead jumps around, it remains more of an intellectual treatise than anything (it is based on the work of Jon Savage, and his book about the formation of teenage culture, which helps to explain this as well). But it is still an interesting documentary from start to finish.