DIR: Matt Wolf • WRI: Jon Savage, Matt Wolf • PRO: Ben Howe, Kyle Martin • DOP: Nick Bentgen • ED: Joe Beshenkovsky • MUS: Bradford Cox • DES: Inbal Weinberg • Cast: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich, Ben Rosenfield
Based on the book by Jon Savage and focusing on the birth and evolution of what we now consider adolescence, Teenage offers an overview of youth and youth culture from the turn of the century up until the Second World War. Using a decidedly modern soundtrack and featuring a voice-over cast of current, young actors such as Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone, the film attempts to chart a continuity between the stock footage of turn-of-the-century youth and the present. Additionally director Matt Wolf weaves into these collections of stock footage extremely well realised ‘filmed portraits’ of teenagers from the various periods. These sequences are blended seamlessly with the stock footage and act as an excellent complement to the real footage in providing a more focused point of view from which to experience the various points in history.
This is however one of those rare anomalies of a film; the popcorn documentary. The fast editing, occasionally overwrought nature of the style, casting of young, attractive actors like Whishaw and a soundtrack made up of alt-pop; all combine to present a fast, visually and aurally appealing (yet simplistic) and generally very watchable film. The problem is that it doesn’t seem to have a central thrust and instead elects to essentially say the word ‘youth’ over and over in the most inspiring tone of voice it can manage. This lack of an overt message shouldn’t be an issue as you’d imagine it would allow for an interpretative element but even then there’s a problem. The film’s central subject is so nebulous a concept (right down to the title; it’s Teenage rather than Teenager) that without a central thesis to string all of its loosely connected elements together with, any parallels or patterns the film seems to be establishing come off as, at best incidental or at worst outright contradictory in the face of the utter lack of context or awareness of them that the film demonstrates.
This problem is most evident in the genuinely celebratory tones the film treats the idea of youth with, which come across as blissfully (or perhaps intentionally, it’s difficult to tell) ignorant of the far more cynical nature of what the film, inadvertently or not, is implying. We are repeatedly shown over the course of the documentary that youth and teenage culture repeats the same pattern in different eras and countries: youth gains independence, which turns to cultural and lifestyle rebellion against the establishment, which then leads to a burn-out, a ‘hangover’ of aimlessness, which youth demands the establishment to fix, which in turn leads to youth culture being trained and conditioned for war, only for the act and horror of war to lead back to the original start point of independence and anti-establishment sentiment. Despite amply demonstrating this trend, it never addresses how genuinely depressing a notion it is or even shows any awareness of it. Yet the film continues to move swiftly forward while always vaguely supporting the notion of youth culture and the ability for change it represents.
Another slightly uncomfortable aspect that the film encourages you to infer is how youth culture in each era and country (from Britain to Germany) seems to be tied inextricably with the highly commodified and consumer-driven American culture of the given era. Although fitting in its own way, drawing parallels between the short-lived nature of each generation’s youth and the disposable, quickly forgotten nature of the various fads of American culture seems like another unintended and depressing constant to bring attention to. It’s especially curious given the overall message of timelessness and the continuity the film attempts to draw to the present when many ‘meaningful’ modern youth movements are centred on a rejection of both American and consumer culture.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the film appears sincere in its celebration of teenage (specifically American and consumerist) culture then this documentary would almost be a masterclass in scathingly cynical cultural analysis. Yet even then it would lack a committed stance on its subject matter. The vaguely sincere tone, especially in the final wrap-up narration, is the only aspect that even begins to give context and imply that the film has an agenda. Without that, it would just be an emotionally detached, beautifully shot and edited, condensed history of youth culture that would leave it up to you to make your own (depressing) inferences.
Despite all that, this isn’t in any way an unpleasant film to watch. The editing and pacing, combined with the soundtrack, make for a very kinetic viewing experience over the course of its shorter-than-average running time. It’s just that the overall enterprise is strangely incoherent, seemingly wilfully ignorant and disappointingly shallow. This may be a problem that stems from condensing a book worth of material into a film but given how short the film is, the film could really have benefitted from expanding further on its ideas.
Teenage is released on 24th January 2014