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Entries in Teenage [2014] (1)

Thursday
May012014

Teenage (2014)

Stunted Growth

As a concept, Matt Wolf's film Teenage is compelling: using beautifully remastered archival footage, and guided by Jon Savage's book of the same name, he traces the origin of the word "Teenage" to its roots--as a means of understanding how youth, and society as a whole, evolved in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unfortunately (or fortunately, for fans of squirmy meta-irony), this frustrating documentary elicits joy, rage, and boredom, in varying measures, and stops just short of its glorious potential--much like the teenage years themselves.

I can't be mad at Teenage. It tells a straightforward story, is competently put together, and offers information I didn't have before watching it. But at a slight 78 minutes, a documentary must offer more in order to justify a theatrical experience. Money-and-time-conscious audience members are just as likely to wait for a PBS airing as they are to plunk down cash on an unknown quantity. Yes, the old-timey shots of 1930s high-schoolers getting into mischief and uncomfortably detailed photos of soot-splattered children working in turn-of-the-century factories are fundamentally cinematic. But the narrative threads holding the movie together are frayed and colorless.

Even the filmmakers' attempt to spice things up a bit by introducing re-creations of important-teen profiles falls flat. I was with the movie as it took me along for a breezy class lesson narrated by Jena Malone and Brad Whishaw, set to Bradford Cox's score. But when the faux-distressed clips of actors in period costume popped up, I tuned out. Despite the best intentions of Wolf and cinematographer Nick Bentgen, these segments never feel like they belong with the rest of the movie. They're as inauthentic as inserting clips of Sunday-best-dressed five-year-olds staging a board meeting in the middle of The Wolf of Wall Street.

They're also completely unnecessary, a device apparently aimed at keeping Teenage from "just" being a Ken Burns-style photo collage. You know what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with that form, unless the target audience is attention-deficient teenagers--in which case there's zero danger of them watching this film unless they're assigned or dragged to it.

Most damagingly, Teenage lacks perspective. A similar documentary came out last year, called Good Ol' Freda. That film chronicled the amazing life of The Beatles' secretary, and featured revelatory footage and images. It also interspersed modern-day interviews with the people spotlighted in the rest of the origin story, shedding light on (and in some cases utterly changing the context of) what we'd just watched. Teenage is so insular as to be irrelevant. We get one point of view, as narrated by fictional teens from different eras, who might as well be sharing the same voice (because they kinda do).

What perspective we do get is, for lack of a better term, so whitewashed as to render the scope implied by the film's title to be a lie. The documentary is mostly interested in British and American culture, and the rise of white middle-class and affluent kids in defining the consumption-obsessed world they have wrought. There's some lip-service to black culture (mostly regarding the music and dancing that "inspired" trends in white culture), and we spend some time in Germany, where youth movements went in an entirely different direction in the 1930s.

But these are expected avenues. What of other countries and cultures? Did no one else have a term or classification for teenagers until America sold it to them? And what influence did, say, jazz have in the Middle East? How did the Chinese react to flappers? Did they even know about them? Perhaps I should be aware of all this stuff already--but, hey, I'm a crazy-busy adult who gets most of his modern education from the movies. It's just too bad there isn't a documentary about teen culture I might reference to find the answers.

On that note, I didn't grow up in the early twentieth century, and I can tell you right now that teen life has evolved several times in the six six decades or so since Teenage fades to black. This film feels incomplete--like the first chapter in a series of books-turned-movies--minus any inclination on the part of the author to go on. Had Wolf and company excised the dramatizations and widened the scope, I would have loved to have seen a three or even four-hour narrative on teen culture. As it stands, Teenage is like a documentary about the universe that takes place in Connecticut.