MRR Review: "Teenage"
on 2014-03-26 16:30
Length: 78 minutes
Release Date: April 2013
Directed by: Matt Wolf
In America, and in the western world in general, youth is king. This has been the case for decades, and as far as many people know, it has always been the case. However, the societal concept of the teenager is fairly new, even if the force of the adolescent in consumer culture is now inexorable and undeniable. Director Matt Wolf's documentary "Teenage" is an attempt to examine the genesis of this modern phenomenon and the way it has shaped, and continues to shape, modern culture.
For a subject that has loomed so large in society for so long, the concept of the teenager, which is arguably socially constructed, has had surprisingly little in the way of general examination. While there has been plenty of academic pontificating, as well as hand wringing, the idea of a more broad documentary film seems overdue.
On the surface, "Teenage" is indeed a more general examination of the concept. Judging by the lean running time of 78 minutes, one would assume that the film does not have time to get especially in-depth. However, Wolf approaches his role as documentarian in a novel way that allows for a large, kaleidoscopic and often enlightening portrait to be painted in a relatively short amount of time.
Most modern day movie and television watchers are familiar with a rather specific style of documentary filmmaking. Whether attending a showing at the local art-house movie theater or tuning into PBS, one often expects certain things from documentaries: talking heads, lots of panning on still photos and the use of stock sounds and images. While "Teenage" incorporates some of these elements, the actual style that Wolf employs is fresh and interesting, and seems to be inspired in part by Martin Scorsese's recent music documentaries. There is quite a bit of archival footage, all of it relevant, and much of it fascinating. There is also a creative use of voice-over, including the talents of professional actors, that moves refreshingly far from the usual narration often found in modern documentaries.
The documentary is actually based on a work of non-fiction, "Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945" by Jon Savage. Savage's critically acclaimed work set out to be a prehistory of the modern adolescent, with an examination of the cultural evolution of the concept. The book ends in the 1940s. This is the same time that the term "teenager" was coined, and the demographic became a cultural and commercial force of reckoning. Like Savage's book, Wolf's film takes a kaleidoscopic look at teenagers in different periods during that time in different parts of the western world. The teens' diary-like first person perspectives are voiced by actors Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, among others. All of the documentary's teenagers are striving for something, whether it is becoming a true individual or simply being accepted by society. In a chilling facet of the story, one teenager joins the Hitler Youth, like many young people in her society during that time.
Even with its unique tactics, "Teenage" is still genuine and informative. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, adulthood began much earlier than it does in the 21st century. Practices that would now be considered child labor were common in civilized countries just several generations ago, and "Teenage" makes a point of showing them. Of course, much of the world has evolved over the past century, including the concepts of adolescence and teenage-hood. Remarkable and beguiling footage from the time, all of which was obviously thoroughly researched and assembled, helps put together a vivid picture of the evolution of a huge feature of the contemporary world: the teenager.
Like the Jon Savage book, "Teenage" does an effective job in both reinforcing a cliché and saying something relevant about it. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Even in the 19th century, there were "juvenile delinquents," and young people who were desperate to stand apart from the crowd and their parents to form their own identity. This often awkward transition into adulthood repeatedly results in similar patterns of behavior. However, as society has evolved greatly over the past century, so has the awareness of this adolescent process, to the point where it was finally defined and examined more than ever. As many societies also became more commercial and globalized, the influence of this demographic and its buying power has also grown. "Teenage" is a documentary that effectively brings these facts to moving, compelling life. This is a worthwhile and illuminating film for teenagers and adults alike.