The notion of the ‘teenager’ dominates popular culture to such a degree that it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that the concept is a relatively new one. It’s the emergence of the term and, more crucially, the very idea of this isolated period in a young person’s life that concerns Matt Wolf’s innovative new documentary, Teenage (2013). Punk historian Jon Savage’s book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth: 1875-1945, provides the blueprint for this crafted, if somewhat amorphous piece. Here, Wolf eschews conventional techniques, crafting a shifting collage narrated by our own Ben Whishaw and American actress Jena Malone, amongst others.
Teenage charts the transition from a world filled with only children and adults to one incorporating a third pubescent category. It lays the foundations of this now ubiquitous concept with the adoption of new child labour laws. The halting of pre-teens heading out to work in factories made necessary a new period in the lives of young people; a designated passage between childhood and adulthood – the now recognisable coming of age event. This coincided with an explosion in a subculture for the under twenties, and the film chronicles movements like the boy scouts, the Bright Young Things of 1920s London, the instigators of dance crazes and youth groups that also opposed Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime of the thirties and forties.
Showing an ambition in both scope and its formal experimentation, Teenage is more of a poetic reimagining of the original material than a direct adaptation – which consequently proves to be both its greatest strength and its Achilles’ heel. The patchwork of archive footage is stitched together expertly and complemented by subtly inserted re-enactment and expressive and haunting narration. The use of just four actors, however, to voice a variety of unidentified readings also serves to create the sensation of listening to a screenplay rather than the legitimate diary entries that it most certainly comprises.
Clearly, Wolf’s primary goal was to evoke how it felt to be an adolescent during this prototeen period and to be on the cusp of the new and daring. In this regard, it is a extremely accomplished and suggestive work but it also lacks the clarity and insight into the subject matter that is present in the book. It is a film that bewitches in the screening but lingers less in the aftermath. As such, Teenage feels regrettably like an impressive artistic and poetic accompaniment to Savage’s tome, rather than the standalone examination it had the potential to be.