Teenage, the second feature film from Matt Wolf, is a documentary about…war? Civil rights? Or is it swing dancing? One thing’s for sure: While you’re watching this 78-minute film salad, you’ll wonder how exactly its title applies.
The technical answer is easy: Wolf and co-writer Jon Savage adapted the doc from Savage’s book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. But not long after the opening credits, the filmmakers drop you into an overview of early-20th-century child labor, with archival photos of grease- and dirt-decorated urchins staring into the camera. They aren’t teenagers; they’re children.
An awkward comment, voiced by Ben Whishaw, serves as a very brief lead-in: “First, we were just children. That’s how they thought of us. And then all of a sudden, we were supposed to be adults.” Another bit of narration, this time by Jena Malone, says that teenagers “were a wartime invention.” And just previous to that, two adolescent boys are sitting by a record player bemoaning their existence. “We should be living in the Wild West,” one remarks.
Malone and Whishaw, along with Julia Hummer and Jessie Usher, give air to the diary entries of four youths who are of no significance to the audience. (Nothing personal, guys and gals.) Why should you give a fuck about them? Beats me. They’re not even introduced; the voiceovers just kick in as the old footage and not-too-smooth re-creations do, and they often don’t offer a whole lot of insight. (“Who would we become?” Malone reads. Gee, what a deep thought for a morphing adult to mull over.) Eventually, specific characters are profiled, but it’s still unclear whether all the previous narration applied to each of them.
Worse, the readings are stilted, and jump from person to person as whiplash-edly as the film jumps from country to country and subject to subject, though both World Wars, particularly II, are covered more than anything else. (Think of Kristen Stewart performing a first script read-through: “When Benny Goodman played New York, it was madness.” Then imagine the line even flatter.) The doc gets a bit of life when it forays into the late-night dance parties of jitterbugs, but then it returns to Hitler Youth. Wasn’t this already addressed?
The most amusing aspect of Teenage, though it doesn’t pop up often enough, is the jargon of bygone eras: A riot in Harlem, for instance, is said to have been instigated “by a few rowdies and hoodlums.” (To be clear: I am not suggesting that the riots were amusing.) Unquestionably, the idea of there once never having been a transitional bridge between dolls and domesticity is intriguing, and the roots of such a shift in societal thinking are crucial to the story. It could also be unwieldy to tackle the entire history between the teens who grew up too fast because of wars to the overwhelmingly coddled kids of today, whose adolescence doesn’t stop when their growing pains do and who keep a determined grip on Mom and Dad’s protective wings well into adulthood.
But an elegant, linear approach—even if the film hadn’t extended itself past the 1950s or so—would have made Teenage a much more enlightening watch. Instead, the doc takes on the persona of teens themselves, shifting from one mood or crush or fad to the next before you can get used to their previous preferences. The truest line spoken in the film comes from Malone, who says, “I love being 17…that perfect spot between adolescence, which means you’re going somewhere, and adulthood, which means you’re on the downgrade.” Pessimistic, definitely. But the theory is sure to make some viewers nod.