Teenage – documenting of the evolution of the teenager

Teenage – documenting of the evolution of the teenager

Based on a book by the punk author Jon Savage, Teenage is an often fascinating but equally frustrating historic collage showing the evolution of the teenager as a movement and period in one’s life.

Filmmaker Matt Wolf meticulously traces the history of youth culture in America, England and Germany, for the past 100 years or so until the term teenager acquired the meaning it has today.

The thesis is that teenagers did not always exist: you went from being a child straight to work like an adult.

Wolf creates a photo and film montage of everything from the boy scouts and Wandervogel, to the Boxcar Children, the liberation offered by the Jitterbug, the rebellion of the Victory Girls, Hitler’s Youth Movement, Flappers, Swing Kids and Sub-Debs to the screaming followers of Frank Sinatra.

Savage and Wolf contend that by the end of World War II, the distinct group of adolescents and young adults, the teenager, could no longer be ignored.

The footage and diaries are fascinating but in sailing through the decades and across countries so rapidly, Wolf leaves us little time to contemplate what the various youth movements said about young people and their interaction with adults.

Surely the Hitler’s Youth Movement and English boys lying about their age to enlist show the influence of adults, while the Jitterbug and Swing Kids heralded a rebellion through dance that seems to have excluded adults.

The inclusion of films like Rebel without a Cause might not have been amiss while discussing the influence of America after WWII.

The confusion arises because Wolf not only skips among the three countries, but mixes rare archival footage and excerpts from real diaries with ‘filmed portraits’ of selected historic teenagers. 

Excerpts from diaries are read by four actors, including the celebrated Shakespearean and film actor Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Perfume) but you might find yourself  wondering whether other narration that has been written for the film.   

The result is that we can’t always figure out what is fiction and what is non-fiction.  Ironically, given the background of Jon Savage and the film’s title, the film will be of more interest to older audiences, both for this cross-sectional view of their lives and the rare archival footage. 

by Joyce Glasser – Mature Times film reviewer