Matt Wolf’s Teenage strings together archival images and real diary entries (voiced by actors) of young people throughout the 20th century to ruminate on the genesis of youth culture. According to the film, the figure of the adolescent was architected by America in the early 1900s as a kind of means to tease kids into performing adult-like patriotism, first as Boy Scouts, and, soon after, as brainwashed war soldiers. The ploy of adolescence turned against its architects, however, as post-war teens became rebellious and hedonistic, leading up to a made-in-America consumerist boom that spread around the globe—which the film seems timidly critical about, if at all. Eventually, these children—mostly white and straight, and all from the so-called developed world—begin to resent the fact that adults made a mess out of a world that they’d have to inherit. So they protest some and dance a lot, at which point black youth (e.g. “negros” and “jitterbugs”) enter the scene. (Blackness here is handled as a chapter of history to be addressed, not as the perpetual presence imbricated in every historical event.)
Wolf’s reliance on archival material is a refreshing alternative to the too-common use of talking heads in documentary filmmaking. Surely, the culling of images was a painstaking process, and the result is a fascinating historical document. However, the task of producing some kind of definite history of the 20th century from the point of view of teenagers is a thankless and unwinnable one. As a history of and by these figures of latent revolution, creativity, and youth, the film is marred by a rather linear sense of time, an awfully tame voiceover, and a very well-behaved sense of audio-visual poesis. Worst of all is its focusing on the life of American, British, and German teenagers while putting forth a rhetoric of teen life vis-à-vis the entire world. Where are all the teenagers of Latin America who formed guerilla groups and fought against its many coups and dictatorships? And why are Africans only visible as African-Americans?
From photographs of disturbingly young American miners to Hitler youth camps, Teenage features some incredible footage, but the way it weaves together with the narration often turns the images into mere illustration of the points raised, almost never clashing to yield unexpected meaning. The film also tries to wrap history up in a bow rather optimistically, signing off with an upbeat track and a voice that tells us the teenager is something of a happy compromise that granted youngsters freedom but also accountability. It’s impossible for any one piece of cinema to account for all of history—all its many angles, nuances, and violent effacements. In that sense, Teenage botches itself out of its own epic ambitions, an aesthetic slickness that seems to contradict, if not betray, its subject matter, and a maddeningly subdued critical spirit.