Although boys and girls have been morphing into ganglier, pubescent versions of themselves since the beginning of humankind, the notion of teenagers as a distinct social entity - a cultural force, a movement - is really a 20th-century phenomenon.
Or so posits the documentary Teenage, Matt Wolf's nifty adaptation of Jon Savage's 2007 book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. Deploying an exhilarating whirl of archival footage (newsreels, propaganda pics, home movies, cheesy cinema, and priceless clips from the U.K., U.S., Germany, and beyond) the film makes the case that thanks to child-labor laws and two world wars, to boredom and abandon, to the libido, to popular music, to government mobilizations and generational mistrust, adolescents became, well, teenagers.
Not children. Not adults. Something in between, something to be reckoned with.
Wolf takes British journalist and Sex Pistols biographer Savage's thesis and gets actors Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw (among others) to voice the issues and concerns faced by teenagers of their respective days (and nationalities). In Nazi Germany, a band of teens who adopted foppish manners and floppy hats - mimicking the Brits they loved - were branded homosexuals, criminals. In England, Brenda Dean Paul and her "Bright Young Things" grabbed headlines with their dancing, drugs, debauchery. In America during World War II, young blacks struggled with a humiliating double standard: soldier heroes abroad, second-class citizens at home.
If Teenage delivers a sweeping generalization or two (or three), quantifying individuals with a unifying set of statistics, or umbrella-ing everyone under a pop-craze downpour (Sinatra, swing music, the Veronica Lake hairdo), Wolf's documentary makes up for it with footage that's just too good to be ignored. Rudolph Valentino, glammy flappers, Jazz Age clubs, beaming bohemians, city kids in FDR's Citizen Conservation Corps (suddenly surrounded by mesas and mountains), partyers, rioters, rebels with and without a cause . . .. Smells like teen spirit, and looks like it, too.
Teenage *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Matt Wolf. With the voices of Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Alden Ehrenreich, and others. Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Running time: 1 hour, 18 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz BourseEndText