In modern popular culture, the teenager reigns supreme, the construction of pop stars itself depends upon a young and rabid fan base and the proliferation of so many filmic franchises relies on hooking viewers when they’re young. What’s not often discussed, though, is the teenager as anything more than a consumer or a social problem, and Matt Wolf’s Teenage seeks to fill this void. A mostly historical account of the development of ‘teenagers’, from child labour in the early 1900s to the Second World War, the film uses archival footage and re-enactments to chart the lives of a few ‘characters’ and the evolution of youth social groups.
Teenage is, mostly, a compilation documentary. We open on talking head interviews with children, reminiscent of Apted’s 7 Up series, yet the majority of the film uses news reels and propaganda films, coupled with character-based narration, to construct a unique narrative experience. Jena Malone voices the perennial American youth, Ben Whishaw the British, Julia Hummer the voice of a young German girl around WWII and Jessie Usher the voice of a young African American teenager in the 1930s. These changing perspectives do make for compelling viewing, though whereas Hummer and Usher voice characters that are depicted in the film, it is Malone and Whishaw, who act as omnipotent narrators, whose words stir the most. In fact, while the look at these characters does tend to make the film more intimate in these sequences, they pale qualitatively even to similar sequences where we have a narrator not present in the scene, with the Hamburg Swings segment coming to mind as perhaps the most successful re-enactment used in the film.
The film is also an interesting adaptation, finding its basis in Jon Savage’s 2007 book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945, which does explain some structural issues in the film. As it nears its end, we prepare for the American Graffiti-style look at the teenager and a clearer modern link, yet the film ends where Savage’s book does – in 1945, feeling abrupt and lacking any real cohesive statement about the evolution of teenagers from that point on. Its internal structure is engaging, edited to play out almost like a staid historical documentary, it called to mind those hyper-informative but droll History Channel documentaries that would be screened for high school students, yet here both the subject matter and its execution remain interesting.
From a technical perspective, while some of the fictive elements to the film felt narratively forced, visually they are very impressive. Wolf has nailed down the jitter of old film and, at times, it is hard to tell apart his recreated scenes from existing material. This commitment to a visual style allows for a smooth viewing experience and also allows Wolf to play with the introduction of colour, which happens about halfway through the film, in the story of Brenda Dean Paul. The suddenness of the shift is a clever and simple way to once more play with the archival compilation format but also signify a narrative shift – it is from this point onwards that we dabble more in fictive re-enactments than entirely archival sources.
One of the strongest elements of the film is the original score by Bradford Cox, of the band Deerhunter. It’s an admirable creative decision by Wolf, to use a mostly consistent musical score throughout rather than rely on contextual music clips, but it pays off in a big way. There is a scene late in the film where we see a massive crowd of teenage girls attempting to get into a Frank Sinatra show. Instead of hearing any of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ renditions of swing standards, we hear his final note of a song as it fades into Cox’s score, this short sequence in the film actually transcending its form – through this removal of actual sound, focus on the crowd and a faint reminder of the subject, this clip becomes less a mere archival piece than an integral statement within the feature. The consistency of the score allows for the readings of a universal continuation of the ethos of the teenager, and it taking centre stage over Sinatra himself here is emblematic of that.
Teenage manages to say a surprising amount about community structures, whether that be through the army, youth groups or gangs roaming the streets.1 It presents a persuasive argument about the power of collective appreciation of art or music in shifting societal values – the scenes which focus on swing as a new universal language, though quite brisk in looking at racism and race relations, were very compelling. The film is also able to humorously juxtapose PSA films of ‘teenage delinquency’ with the reality of life in those times – one PSA featuring the line “and so Jack is learning about social control” elicited a big laugh from me.2
Moreover, Teenage is an ever-interesting form of documentary, reliant on clever editing to move through a large amount of historical information yet retain a sense of pace about it. Whilst Rodney Ascher may still be the current reigning champion of postmodern documentary cinema, Matt Wolf has nobly taken a step in doing something different with the documentary form and approaching an almost-laughable subject matter with sensitivity and insight.
Teenage plays at Sydney Underground Film Festival on the 7th of September, 2014. Tickets can be purchased here.
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