Director: Matt Wolf
Running time: 80 minutes
See that picture above? A bit unsettling, no? Chances are, everyone in the image has long since passed, and all that's left of their impact on this world is whatever can be seen in whatever this shot. You're forced to intuit everything about their lives based on the picture. As in, why do they look so malevolent? What's up with those guns? And how on Earth did they survive without Facebook or Twitter?
Not easily, as it turns out, though not due to any social media concerns. Based on author and co-screenwriter Jon Savage's 2007 book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, Matt Wolf's hypnotic, unique, but also scatterbrained documentary Teenage travels back to pre-World War II America, Germany, and London to bring youths like the ones in that photo to life. With so much material at his disposal, Wolf is overly ambitious with the film's narrative threads; while attempting to travel back and forth from one country's youth movement to the next in some kind of chronological order, Wolf ultimately zigs over his zags. Teenage, though brimming with moments of raw, personal insight into a world mostly seen in history textbooks, is as jarring as it is fascinating.
On a purely technical level, though, Teenage is laudable. The film mixes a plentiful amount of archival footage together with authentic-looking Super 8 reenactments, and narration from actors like Jena Malone and Skyfall's Ben Whishaw, all of whom read honest, angry, and compelling entries straight out of real-life diaries. Vibrant and contemporary original music—arranged by Bradford Cox, member of the indie rock group Deerhunter—plays throughout, lending Teenage a moody atmosphere that greatly adds to its visual and sonic force.
Without using any on-camera interviews, Wolf relies upon the newsreel footage and historically relevant videos to keep the viewer completely embedded in the past. It's an unconventionally immersive and at times strange experience not unlike that of the recent The Shining doc Room 237. Concurrently, the film's darkest stories take on almost phantasmagoric allure. There's the 19-year-old English socialite who, as recounted by one of the key journal writers used as a reference in Teenage, chased fame and widespread social acceptance all the way into a morphine addiction. Just as sobering are the anecdotes delivered by a rebellious German girl who happily joins the Hitler Youth. Hoping to "escape from my narrow, childish life," she tragically come face-to-face with Adolf's evil ways when some of her peers, obsessed with the American-bred "jitterbug" dance craze's liberating appeal, defy the Nazi regime and pay the price.
Genuinely painful revelations like those are found throughout Teenage, making it nearly impossible not to finish the picture feeling moved and with the sentiment that the highs and lows of entering adulthood have spanned all generations. Had Wolf streamlined the musings into something less all-over-the-place, though, the film could have struck more lasting notes. As it stands, Teenage is a frequently informative mood piece that falls short of becoming an indispensable source of enlightenment.