Matt Wolf’s documentary raises the same questions about non-fiction filmmaking that Sarah Polley’s superb “Stories We Tell” did. The difference between “Stories” and “Teenage,” however, is that while Polley structured her film deliberately to compel viewers to confront the difference between archival material and “aged” recreations and the propriety of intermingling the two, unless one sits through the final credits he wouldn’t necessarily know that Wolf’s picture is an uncanny combination of the two, and even then it’s not made clear which is which. That, of course, raises an issue of honesty and credibility that’s integral to the very essence of documentary filmmaking itself, and “Teenage” should engender discussion and debate about it.
Setting such considerations aside, however, Wolf’s film is an engaging, persuasive depiction of the emergence of adolescence as a societal category in the twentieth century. Based on a book by Jon Savage that bears the subtitle “The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945,” it starts from the observation that prior to the nineteenth century, there were no such things as teenagers; there were merely children and adults, and an individual moved directly from the one to the other, however childishly some so-called adults might have acted. Laws that curtailed child labor in factory work began the process of distinguishing an intervening category that was marked by public schooling and the Boy Scout movement, both originating partially at least to mitigate the “hooliganism” into which youths with time on their hands were likely to fall.
The process accelerated, the film continues, in the second decade of the twentieth century, when World War I put adolescent soldiers in European trenches and the post-war frenzy created the thrill-seeking youths of the twenties. The Depression, however, led to desperation for jobs in both America and Europe—and the film links Franklin Roosevelt’s Civil Conservation Corps with the Hitler Youth as parts of a similar movement to meet the needs of the young for direction and hope, while also singling out the German “Swing Kid” rebels as a counterpoint to the latter. World War II and its aftermath, Wolf concludes, led to the definitive distinction of a teen culture, the existence of which was mirrored in general societal concerns about youth conduct but also in in commercial efforts directed to that particular demographic. Its ultimate emergence was marked by the appearance of a “Teen-Age Bill of Rights” in the New York Times in 1945—a virtual demand for recognition., presaging the more radical explosions of youth chic that were to follow.
Savage, it should be noted, is first and foremost a music scholar, and Wolf follows his book in identifying changes in musical style—from the Charleston of the twenties to jazz and the Sinatra mania of the forties—as important elements in the story. But there’s another kind of music in the readings from period journals by Jenna Malone, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Usher and Julia Hummer, who taken together form a sort of shifting commentary on the visuals and obviate the need for an omniscient narrator.
The result of this combination of visuals both archival and newly-concocted, musical examples and voiceover is less a straightforward cinematic argument than a dreamlike, multileveled evocation. In those terms it works extremely well, with the various elements washing over you and carrying you along toward the conclusions it wants to convey. You have to admire Wolf’s skill in melding the material he’s collected—and created—into a whole that’s both informative and entertaining.
And yet the cautionary methodological concern remains. Recreation has become a common practice in modern non-fiction filmmaking; Errol Morris is one of its consummate practitioners. And it’s really not all that new, if one considers that some of the famous battlefield stills of the nineteenth century were arguably staged to increase their effect. But rarely has the technique been employed to such an extent, and with such circumspection, as it is here. Whether you consider that a virtue or a problem may well color your opinion of “Teenage.”