A rousing pre-credits sequence ends with a question that asks who would take the more decisive role in shaping the world: “Who would decide it? The adults or us?” The answer to this question is readily available in the film’s title and subject matter. It is no contest, from the point of view of Teenage, that adolescents were the most consequential cultural force of the 20th century. And this is where the film’s arguable limitations align perfectly with its subject matter. It romanticizes and generalizes the historical evolution of youth with a decidedly narrow and pre-determined lens. Yet what better way to address to subject of teendom than through hazy nostalgia, assertive self-seriousness, and simplicity?
Teenage is a film that, like your stereotypical teenager, is palpably enamored with itself from the get-go. While some of its elements will surely inspire some necessary eye-rolling, more often its pungent romance with adolescence is intoxicating and contagious.
Based on Jon Savage’s cultural history of adolescence, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture 1875–1945, Matt Wolf’s film tracks the historical development of teendom from protests against child labor laws in 1904 to the 1945 publication of the Teenage Bill of Rights. The nations of focus are England, Germany and the United States. But the last receives the biggest portion of the film’s attention as the epicenter of adolescent cultural production, modeling the dance moves, smoking habits and pop songs that teenagers elsewhere in the western world would inevitably imitate.
Teenage has a remarkably mainstream pedigree for an archival documentary and rightfully suggests that this film has the potential to reach a relatively wide audience. Jason Schwartzman is listed as a producer, and name actors including Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone contribute to the multiple voice-overs of imagined teenagers that experience this history firsthand. Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound provides a hip electronic score that simultaneously mimics historical pop styles while contributing a timeless ambience to underscore the film’s ambitious yet compact historical scope. The score is both anachronistic and attentive.
The film mixes archival footage of youth activities and major events with original materials that focus on invented characters meant to symbolize or stand in for certain moments in adolescence: a beautiful English socialite of the 1920s; an elated but eventually terrified Hitler Youth in the 1930s; a young African-American male navigating the U.S.’s paradoxical love of black music and hatred of black people during the 1940s.
The original footage is hardly seamless, and the film’s characterizations of invented stand-ins are ultimately too simplistically realized to compete with its compelling combination of existing footage and diary-style narration. And when dealing with the more harrowing aspects of the first half of the twentieth century, Teenage can be quite indelicate and awkward in its execution at times. Elita, the film’s Hitler Youth stand-in, at one point complains, after the Third Reich rise in power, that the now-compulsory organization isn’t the party it used to be and she gets totes bummed out over the fact that she can’t talk to her Jewish friends anymore. Moments like this challenge the film’s generalizing scope by highlighting the fact that “youth” during this period wasn’t a universal experience for many people of a young age.
Any film that covers over forty years across three nations in under 80 minutes is going to be reductive by design. But for all that Teenage flattens out, it manages to create an unabashedly emotive experience of history through its masterful and affecting combination of archival footage, music and narration. The film’s trajectory stretches from the moment when the young could no longer be used for work to youth’s development into the most-targeted group for advertising, politics and entertainment, decidedly ending at the place where most histories of the young begin. In doing so, the film seeks to capture a “moment” rather than chronicle a history. With this approach, it’s easy to forget that the young people depicted in the film’s first moments would become the parents of the young people depicted in its last — the older generation that the new crop of young would rebel against. Instead of a fleeting moment, Teenage prefers instead to track the evolution of youth as an eternal institution.
This is not to say that there is a complete lack of specificity in Teenage. In addition to the anticipated boxes checked by the film — post-WWI trauma, the proliferation of jazz, the zoot suit riots, changes in femininity — it also covers some rarely acknowledged youth subcultures like 1920s British theme partiers, Sub-Debs and teen canteens. These portions of the film will make you rethink the supposed ground broken by subsequent beatniks, hipsters and punks.
More of a well-crafted experience than a historical chronicle, Teenage is an illustrative portrait of adolescence from the attempted point-of-view of those who first made sense of it.