Jitterbug dance contest at the Shrine Auditorium in Southern CA, 1939. From TEENAGE.

Jitterbug dance contest at the Shrine Auditorium in Southern CA, 1939. From TEENAGE.

It is the privilege of teenagers to think that they are the first to confront the world with their quest for meaning, their need to belong. It is perhaps the curse of modern thinking to presume the notion of the teenager sprung fully-formed from the ashes of World War II.  There’s no shortage of films — fictional and non- — that explore the post-war rise of teens as a social, cultural, and economic force. But for all the boomers, hippies, gen-X’ers, gen-Y’ers, etc, etc. that have already been documented,  there were in fact generations preceding, generations who, with the advent of the twentieth century, the abolition of child labor, and the spread of popular culture through movies, radio, and records, helped demarcate this hitherto undefined stage of life and learning.

Based on the book by the same name by punk author Jon Savage, Matt Wolf’s kaleidoscopic documentary, Teenage, attempts to extend the time line far enough back to fill in those crucial blanks. Exploring the first five decades of the twentieth century and focusing specifically on events in the U.S, Britain, and Germany, Wolf looks at the first generations who sought to define themselves as separate from their parents and, frequently, society at large, even as their elders struggled to respond to this new social force, responses that tended to boil down to attempts either to co-op and control (who could’ve imagined that fascism would be one of the first things target-marketed to teens?), or to outright destroy (and sometimes both).

Elizabeth Raiss as a 1940s teenager in TEENAGE.

Elizabeth Raiss as a 1940s teenager in TEENAGE.

Dubbing his approach a “collage,” Wolf eschews the authoritative voice of the outside narrator, choosing instead to present his narrative through the collective voices of the teens living through their times. Mixing archival footage with staged reenactments featuring, among others, actors Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone, the director explores the cultural and social forces that both shaped and were spawned by each generation, pausing occasionally to focus in on the tales of a self-destructive Bright Young Thing here, an avid Hitler Youth  there, an African American Boy Scout in the U.S. It’s an effective mix of overview and pinpoint observation, revelatory for the parallel lines it draws in each generation’s paradoxical attempts to mark out their individuality, even as they strive to define a community of their own. The survey, in fact, is so compelling that it leaves one wondering what tales aren’t being told, what gaps remain in the gaps that are being filled. What was happening in France, in Spain? Was the Third World involved, was Asia? Seventy-eight minutes is not enough to cover the full revolution (and, ideally, Savage’s book goes a long way towards providing the broader view); if Wolf isn’t thinking of Ken-Burnsing this into a full-fledged TV series, someone should. For now, though, Teenage restores the voices of the generations that helped shape our own, and serves as a moving reminder that the joys and anguishes experienced by teens now were shared by those who helped map out this vital phase of life.

TEENAGE. Directed by Matt Wolf. Oscilloscope Laboratories, Opening NY & LA on 3/14/14, 78 mins. With: Jean Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer, Jessie Usher.


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