Review: Teenage

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still from Teenage

Filmmaker Matt Wolf's Teenage, a glossy video collage about the growth of youth culture in the early to mid-20th century, is inspired by author Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945.  Austin Film Society hosted a screening of the film (with Wolf in attendance) last August, but Teenage returns to Austin this weekend for a theatrical run.

Opening in 1904, scenes of children at factories are shown as narrators explain how child-labor laws led to further schooling for kids. Jena Malone (Contact, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Bright Star, Skyfall) are two of the four voices who speak from a specific point of view.

Amid the vintage photos and footage are live-action sequences -- with color adjustments and added graininess to blend in with the older stock -- used to illustrate singular stories representing significant movements. These silent scenes, scored with ambient music and narrated by the four speakers, make Teenage appear less revolutionary and more like something you might find on PBS's American Experience. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it’s not as original a project as the movie wants to be.

Groups such as the Boy Scouts, Hitler Youth and CCC are placed in some chronology with the Bright Young Things, swing fad and reactionary teens of the early Forties. There is slight diversity in the faces shown and stories told, but it made me curious about the histories not heard here. What about the Japanese-American kids sent to camps during WWII? The young immigrant women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire (which consequently led to better labor laws and unions)? Some darker moments of this segment of history are mentioned, but not delved into very deeply.

If Teenage is viewed less as a historical documentary and more as an audio-visual work of art, these missing aspects are more forgivable. The editing is smooth, with generations and groups broken up by relevant quotes on a black screen. The eras flow into one another with nary a jostle. The score by Bradford Cox (from the band Deerhunter) is electronic and modern, a contrast to the more analog times depicted. 

Teenage loses momentum in the last act, but has a snappy ending sequence featuring 1945's "'Teen-Age Bill of Rights."  If you only have a vague notion of the role young folks played in this period of American or Western-European history, you might learn something.  Otherwise, Wolf's short movie (clocking in at 78 minutes) may not teach you anything you don't already know. It's a visual treat for your brain with not much educational aftertaste.