By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Written by director Matt Wolf and John Savage, and based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Savage, the frustrating documentary Teenage forces a fascinating subject into an unworkable format. The film examines the creation of the teenager in the early 20th century through several different cultures (mostly German, British, and white American), showing how this “second stage of life” between childhood and adulthood didn’t really exist before the advent of child labor laws in the early 1900s.
Wolf traces this multi-country social evolution through the use of archival clips, flat re-creation footage, and a fairly insipid use of first-person narrators. The narrators, who include Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone, are supposed to represent the free-floating soul of teenage yearning and rebellion over the course of half a century, nameless nobodies who act and think as one sociocultural mass. However, this tactic just makes the movie feel impersonal and anecdotal, and leaves the level of insight shockingly low. “I loved having fun with my friends,” says one random nobody.
Interspersed into the film are a few more developed side stories that spotlight noted teenage rebels of their time, such as British tabloid magnet Brenda Dean Paul, or the Nazi-era “Swing Kid” Tommie Scheel. This is where Wolf incorporates his amateur-ish re-creation footage, intercut irony-free alongside the archival material which comprises the bulk of the picture. It is far from the only offensive narrative device in Teenage – for example, I have a highly personal pet peeve against documentaries that try to “spruce” up pre-sound film clips with sound effects and background voices, and that’s pretty much the entire movie here.
For all its fetishization of youth, Teenage evinces a Boomer-ish tendency to paint pop history in broad, condescending strokes. “Adults weren’t ready to integrate, but jitterbugs were,” says another random nobody. Rather than being revelatory, the film leans pretty heavily on racial and cultural stereotypes, and draws a lot of dubious and underdeveloped conclusions.
Just like every 1960s hippie burned their draft card at Woodstock, every 1920s teen in Wolf and Savage’s vision was a Charleston-kicking flapper, every Depression-era teen was a wild boy of the road rescued by New Deal labor projects, and so on. It says a lot about the film’s shallowness that its most challenging and developed portions form an argument in favor of the Hitler Youth as a wellspring of teenage rebellion that eventually turned to sand.