Teenage is a documentary about those years between the onset of adolescence and adulthood but throw away any preconceptions involving talking heads, child psychologists, and he said/she said points of view.
Director Matt Wolf takes a dreamier, more impressionistic approach to the form, combining fascinating archival footage with contemporary re-creations that merely look faded and old overlayed with voiceovers by actors reading the words of young people from earlier eras. Based loosely on Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture 1875-1945, it chronicles the growth of a singular youth sensibility from the late 1800s — when most went from play to hard work in less time than you can say “child labor” — to the post-WWII era where a growing leisure economy meant more people could luxuriate in those years between grade-school recreation and adult responsibility.
As history, Teenage is flawed. Much gets left out: The main focus is on white American, British and German youth with a cursory nod to young blacks’ contributions to jazz and swing dancing as well as the discrimination of young black men faced at home after serving in the world wars. Not only that, but Wolf is so adept at knitting together his re-creations with the real thing that it becomes hard to tell one from the other.
Yet, as filmmaking, Teenage is a hypnotic whirlwind of imagery, all enhanced by the moody score by Bradford Cox of the band Deer Hunter. And Wolf does it all without mentioning the term “rock ’n’ roll.” For a film that’s ultimately a salute to the birth and growth of teenage rebellion, that in itself is an accomplishment.
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