Directed by Matt Wolf
Most people don’t appreciate that the creation of the modern teenager entailed a seismic cultural shift. As recounted in this documentary, the notion of an extended period of adolescence—physically mature but without adult responsibilities—is new, a byproduct of post-Industrial Revolution labor reforms and the end of agrarian majorities. Now, no other demographic can claim the influence of adolescents in driving the culture or social progress: History (with a capital H) may be made by governments and wars, but the latest youth-rebellion is a reliable precursor to what issues society will be debating down the line. A quiet running joke in the film reinforces how the teenagers of today will inevitably shake their fists at those of tomorrow.
At a brisk 78 minutes, though, there’s no way Teenage can explore this topic fully—or any of the subtopics that it raises. In just the first 30 minutes, the movie skips from the creation of Boy Scouts to flappers and the social unrest caused by the Depression’s unemployment and the rise of Fascism. (Despite all the footage, there doesn’t seems to be any teenage-specific reaction to, say, WWII bombing runs.) All fascinating topics crying out for more in-depth treatment. A subject this broad needs something like a multi-season TV show to do it justice. (Or, say, a book, like the Jon Savage bestseller it’s based on.) There’s little sense of how each generation influenced the next.
The film describes itself as a collage, which is accurate, and Wolf marshals his images with great energy, if little clarity. Some issues need to be put in historical perspective (joining Hitler Youth seems both a symbol of rebellion and conformity—and just how scandalous were those “freak parties”?) while others want for basic context. Diary entries are read (by Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw), but their authors remain anonymous. The archival footage is derived from what appear to be documentaries, home movies and unidentified Hollywood productions—all of which, in a final irony, were written by adults.
Opens March 14 at The Sunshine