Teenage: London Review

Youth culture goes back to its roots.

This rich historical documentary chronicles the emergence of the teenager as a distinct social and cultural group.

Charting the prehistory of youth culture in the early 20th century, this handsome documentary essay compresses a huge and sprawling subject into a smooth, accessible, compact narrative format. Directed by Matt Wolf, a former Guggenheim Fellow who has previously made arts films for PBS and the Sundance Channel, Teenage is largely a poetic patchwork of archive footage overlaid with unseen narrators – among them Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone – reading excepts from teen diaries spanning a half-century period.

Exec produced by the actor Jason Schwartzman, Wolf’s audio-visual oral-history lesson is distilled from the 2007 book of the same name by the British music journalist and punk rock scholar Jon Savage, which tracked the rise of juvenile culture from 1875 to 1945. Inevitably an 80-minute film can only skim a 600-page book, replacing dense detail with lightweight and sometimes trite snapshots. Considering all the rich subcultures it glancingly explores, Teenage could easily have filled a six-hour miniseries. Screening at the London Film Festival this week, U.S. distribution has already been secured by Oscilloscope Laboratories for a planned 2014 release.

Beginning with reforms in child labor laws at the dawn of the new century, Teenage is framed as a kind of transatlantic love story between America and Europe. Along the way it takes in the birth of the Boy Scout movement, adolescent soldiers in the trenches of the Great War, the It Girls and party animals of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, teen workers under Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Hitler Youth, the screaming Bobby Soxers who swooned to Frank Sinatra, the Pearl Harbor attack, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the seminal impact of jazz-loving GIs on London youth during World War II: “the teenager was an American invention, it was what we wanted to be.”

The film is mostly woven together from vintage monochrome footage, including some smart juxtapositions – such as when the staccato jitters of shell-shocked war veterans segue into Jazz Age flappers dancing a herky-jerky Charleston. But some events and characters have also clearly been mocked up, creating staged scenes with a knowingly retro-chic fashion-shoot aesthetic. The narrative ends in 1945, the date Savage posits as Year Zero for the official birth of the teenager. Even so, Wolf includes fleeting future-shock glimpses of Vietnam, punk rock and the Berlin Wall collapsing to invoke the youthquakes that lay ahead.

“This is a story that ends with a beginning,” Whishaw coos wistfully. A very familiar story too, or much of it anyway, ending on a downbeat conclusion that teenagers were largely invented to provide new markets for consumer capitalism. So it is a credit to Wolf and Savage that they have managed to stitch together so much dry, dusty source material into a coherent narrative with poetic sweep and emotional clout. Teenage has no grand theories or big new secrets to reveal, but it holds your interest with lots of small gossipy nuggets.

Production company: Cinereach

Producers: Ben Howe, Kyle Martin

Starring: Ben Whishaw, Jenna Malone, Julia Hummer, Jessie Usher

Director: Matt Wolf

Writer: Jon Savage

Cienmatographer: Nick Bentgen

Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky

Archival researcher: Rosemary Rotondi

Music: Bradford Cox

Sales company: Preferred Content

Unrated, 80 minutes