If you consider how essential the concept of a teenage is/has been to (pop) culture it feels almost ludicrous to think that just over a century a go the very IDEA of a “teenager” didn’t exist. There were children, there were grown ups, and then there was that big, wide void of undefined, unidentified youth which didn’t quite fit into either. All that changed starting with 1902 and Teenage, the lovely, frenetic, appropriately uneven at times new documentary by Matt Wolf and John Savage, traces the birth and development of the idea that would change, well, the whole world as we know it.
Tracing the era between 1902 and 1945, the film mixes in archival footage, stills, and newly recorded (through appropriately nostalgic) footage, combined with narration recorded by the likes of Jena Malone and Ben Winshaw, taking us on a giddy swirl of a ride through everything from positive cultural change (the music! the daring fashions!) to the more treacherous times of when being young, vital and capable of making people see things differently could end up in the wrong hands (the Nazi Germany being a prime example).
The story is that there is no story and this is both a strength and a weakness of the film. As an oral history it works in a way a teenager’s bedroom collage works: busy, full of life and compelling in its bursts of importance and beauty, punctuated by the original score by Bradford Cox of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter, an inspired choice for a film about essentially accepting the fact that you don’t fit in and finding a place where the concept for YOU, as you are, belongs. As a full length film, it lacks a little bit of coherence. Since Wolf and Savage chose to cover several decades of teenagedom and with it, hundreds of happenings, there is often a lack of context and well, a lack of legitimate emotion, which is, as we all know, what being a teenager IS all about. In 2014, the concept of a teenager IS about individuality and the deepest, most intense feelings (last week’s Palo Alto being a recent, great example of “teenage-dom” on film) and telling the story through the eyes of everyone and no one may end up being a little bit of a double edged sword in the eyes of today’s audience.
On the other side of that coin is this: superficial IS a word often used to describe teenagers and choosing to the tell the story from THEIR perspective also robs the movie of maybe a more academic approach that delves deeper into the economic or political motivations behind creating this category: a whole new group of people to market to, a whole new group of people to mold and shape and use as influences, but that is a maybe a different companion movie (that needs to be made).
Still, both as a piece of cinematic anthropology and pure entertainment, the film works, and is a worthy and entertaining companion piece to the cannon of great teenage entertainment. Bookend it with Fast Times At Ridgemont High, some choice John Hughes, maybe Stealing Beauty and a well-edited Happy Days marathon and you’ve got yourself a great reminder of what exactly teen spirit smells like.