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Review: The doc 'Teenage' is a haunting grad school thesis presentation

"Teenage" is an experimental documentary that argues, with pictures and sounds, that teenagers are a 20th century invention.

The new documentary "Teenage" looks at youth's rise during the first half of the twentieth century. Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories The new documentary "Teenage" looks at youth's rise during the first half of the twentieth century.
Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

‘Teenage’
Director: Matt Wolf
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Teenage” is less a documentary than the world’s most stylish PhD thesis. That’s not a bad thing. Filmmakers Matt Wolf and Jon Savage make the argument that the idea of teens as a concept — and later as a marketing demographic — was a wartime invention, specifically by America, then exported, with varying success, globally. Historically, the early stage of youth is not a force, perhaps because so many perished in their early years. Humanity had calmed down enough by the twentieth century that those between 13 and 19 found themselves bored and restless enough to create a culture. And if they didn’t have the means to do even that, they fought for it.

Jumping between America, Britain and Europe, between male and female, white and black, “Teenage” puts its arguments in the form of testimonies from a gaggle of generalized teens, who always speak for the youth of their time and place. Actors like Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone read over top of archival photos and films. But this isn’t strictly made to throw us back in time. Their utterances share the soundtrack with a moody, very modern soundtrack by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, who occasionally slips Neu! in between his noodly, spacey jams.

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“Teenage” only gets up to 1945, at which point youth’s place as permanent lifeforce was secure and things might have turned redundant. But the concerns raised in, say, 1925 would repeat all over the century, and into the next. A young African American wonders whether to assimilate or fight for his rights, while an American girl worries about her own place in society. The century finds young people gaining and losing traction — claiming ground, as with the Bright Young Things in England, or succumbing to their elders, as with the Hitler Youth. Meanwhile a chronological journey affords another reminder that white people repeatedly stole black music, first with swing, then with rock ‘n’ roll.

The findings in “Teenage” aren’t usually surprising. It’s a lot of work to point out what many, if they didn’t know for sure, strongly suspected. Presentation is key, though, and the use of a shifting gallery of eternal youths, dryly recited by people well outside of their teens, combined with the score and bygone images create a haunting, ghostlike quality, focusing on something all of us grow out of and against which we one day rebel, even if out of base jealousy. Aesthetics wind up dwarfing its findings, which can be dubious in their generalizations, particularly in a final montage that links rowdy American teens with Tiananmen Square protesters, suggesting the subject could yield a sequel.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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