Director: Matt Wolf
Cast: Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw
Running Time: 78 minutes
Release Date: January 24th
Typically the attitude of the layman is that the ‘teenage movement’ took flight in the 1950s accompanied by a collage of James Dean’s collective cinematic works and the emerging dynamism of Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison culminating in a peculiar hybrid of what we saw in American Graffiti and Grease. Matt Wolf’s documentary takes the lesser-taken road by examining the building blocks of the teenage revolution, beginning early on in the 20th century and ending at the close of the second World War, with the fall of fascism and the rise of the American middle class.
Wolf enlists the help of actors (notably Skyfall’s Ben Whishaw) to provide voices to real testimonials and diary entries, lifted from Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1845-1945). The film dances its focus around three key locations—America, Germany and the United Kingdom—as it flirts with the safety of convention, the wonder of counter-culture and the dark danger of vice. There are a handful of original dramatisations of certain situations and stories but the real visual accomplishment of the film is in its breathtaking assembly of stock footage from these formative decades—the sweeping propaganda of Nazi Germany and the Hitler youth is as uncomfortably beautiful as ever and the American public service announcements are just as hilariously inept as they will always be, but more surprising is the fidelity and charisma of footage from the 1920s. It’s this collaborative accomplishment that succeeds in making the film an essential archive for modern teenagers.
Like any piece of art that muses on the power of youth and counter-culture, Teenage predictably falls into the pit of pretentiousness on more than one occasion. There are just a few too many occasions where the testimonials make dynamic buzz-wordy statements along the lines of, “We were part of something new and real and we didn’t care if they didn’t understand!” Additionally, even if the film argues quite strongly in favour of the all-encompassing power of American culture, certain viewers may find dialogue such as “We liked the music because it was from America,” a bit hard to stomach.
Nevertheless, Teenage is an enjoyable experiment at cataloguing one of the most important cultural revolutions of recent centuries and hopefully its legacy will prove invaluable for the iPhone generation.