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It may seem difficult to fathom, especially given the degree to which so much present day pop culture resembles a fishing lure designed to catch their capricious attention, but there was a time when teenagers didn’t exist. Sure, there were actual people who were 14-, 15- and 16-years-old, but they weren’t a demographic entity to be either pursued or pilloried. Director Matt Wolf’s fascinating new documentary, Teenage, then, casts an eye backwards, to that time and afterward. The result is an impressionistic rumination on the birth and, well, development (let’s not say maturation) of youth culture.

A collagist work assembled from rare archival material, filmed portraits and voiceover lifted from early 20th century diary entries, Teenage is based on a 2007 book of the same name by Jon Savage that predominantly examines a period of seven decades ending in 1945. Handing back and forth a baton of kaleidoscopic perspectives (its narrators include Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, among others), the film unfolds underneath an original score from Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, which moves from a generalized moody throb to a discordant rendering of jangled panic when charting the effects of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In chronicling some of the cyclic, commingled deaths and births that adolescence holds—of silliness and innocence, of sexual desire and responsibility—Teenage throws a unique light on humanity’s social development over the past century-plus.

The footage is often engaging simply in and of itself. Viewers see everything from 12-year-olds working in factories and Boy Scouts earning their merit badges to extravagant examples of flapper culture and young veterans returning from combat mentally damaged. Some material bores down into specific biography (one passage touches on Brenda Dean Paul, a drug-addled British socialite and silent film actress), but most of the film is generalized (“teen canteens” get a workout, along with the idea of clothes as a personal identifier) or comprised of tales with which people wouldn’t be familiar.

It’s distinctly a piece of cinematic collage, yes, but on a purely emotional level great swaths of Teenage have the same sort of propulsive uplift of songs like MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” or Fun’s “We Are Young,” fortifying anthems of unbridled juvenile energy. Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) reveals himself to be a gifted and intuitive filmmaker, able to make academic connections that are still true to the depth of feeling attached to teenagedom—of living very seriously, except when absolutely not. When, for instance, his film notes the ability of Hitler youth to switch off their private feelings or of the Jitterbug being a great racial equalizer (“Where we couldn’t go, songs could”), it highlights the moral flexibility of youth, for better and worse.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the otherwise trim Teenage bogs down some in its evocations of war. Those sprawling global conflicts undeniably cast huge shadows over the lives of several generations, but there’s a lot of back and forth (the movie isn’t strictly chronological) that in its last half-hour drains some of Teenage’s forward-leaning momentum. Also, in concentrating mostly on the early decades of the 20th century, it feels like Wolf misses an opportunity to more fully develop his work—to push forward into modernity, and explore youth culture’s embrace of and changing relationship with technology, for instance. Maybe that’s subject matter for a sequel, however—a savvy second serving of the sort that teenagers could surely appreciate.

Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets. A former three-term president and current member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Simon can be followed on Twitter and on his blog.

Director: Matt Wolf
Writer: Matt Wolf, based on the book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage
Narrators: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer, Jessie Usher
Release Date: Mar. 21, 2014

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