Featuring the voices of: Jena Malone (American girl), Ben Whishaw (British boy), Alden Ehrenreich (1940s teen), Ben Rosenfeld (Tommie Scheel), Julia Hummer (German girl), Malik Peters (Warren Wall) and a recreated appearance by Leah Hennessey (Brenda Dean Paul)
Bradford Cox, composer
Teenage is an impressive achievement. It’s a film essay, which uses archival footage, staged scenes and a myriad of voices ranging from the famous–Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw—to such relative unknowns as Malick Peters and Julia Hummer.
Jon Savage, whose England’s Dreaming is the definitive account of the punk era, crafted Teenage, a fascinating pre-history of youth culture, in 2007. It’s commonly accepted that the teenage phenomenon occurred after World War Two, when suburbia, cars and a rising consumer culture allowed adolescents freedom, mobility and, most importantly, lots of cash for the first time. Savage’s fine book depicted previous periods when youth were important but not recognized in the same way as they have been since 1945. Impeccably researched and dramatically constructed, it made a case for how the teenage phenomenon was slowly created over the 70 years preceding World War Two.
Matt Wolf has come up with a superb structure for his adaptation of Savage’s book. He avoids the authorial voice; instead he creates a series of characters heard on the soundtrack and shown on screen, who represent the changing image of teenagers in the 20th century. Dropping Savage’s 19th century evocations, Wolf starts with child labourers being exploited in factories—and beginning to rebel against those horrifying institutions. He then moves into hooliganism and the rise of the Boy Scouts, Baden-Powell’s attempt to socialize youth.
Tying the Boy Scouts to young soldiers of World War One might be a stretch but both the book and the film make a case for this misappropriation of idealism. The Roaring Twenties was always youth oriented—and I feel that they miss a beat by not playing some of the rousing music of the era. Still, we see flappers in vintage footage and are told the tragic tale of Brenda Dean Paul, a Bright Young Thing in Britain, who became a notorious drug addict after a spell as the most beautiful young woman in London.
Moving into the ‘30s, Hitler Youth are evoked as is—to a much lesser extent—the young Communist movement. In the US, FDR (President Roosevelt) was mobilizing youth in the Civilian Conservation Corps and other New Deal initiatives. The Swing Era hit—and the jitter-buggers came to represent the youthful vitality of the late ‘30s in America. And then once again, idealism is betrayed by war.
In the US, racism caused civic unrest in Harlem and Los Angeles (the Zoot Suit riots) during World War Two. In Germany, young people “fought” against the Nazis by listening to “verboten” jazz music, which Aryan ideology proclaimed was only played by decadent Jews and black people.
The Savage/Wolf thesis is that youths played an essential part in defining every era of the 20th century whether in the UK, Germany or the United States. (France, Russia, Japan, China, India, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Canada are not included in the film—a huge flaw, of course).
Do they make a case? Yes. Are we entertained? Vastly. The vintage scenes are beautiful and Wolf’s recreations are impeccable. As are the voices.
Is there a drawback? Of course. A case can be made that the teenage movement only arrives when post-WW2 prosperity truly hits American in the late 1940s. Yes, youth had existed and been courted for decades but did the 16-24 cohort of 1912 or 1922 or 1932 or 1942 identify themselves as having a unique identity? Not at all. They saw themselves as “kids” and probably didn’t see much difference between being 14 and 22. It was sex—not addressed here—and money that made adolescents into the “difference making” group. And that’s post-WW2 and maybe only becomes truly apparent in the late ‘60s.
Still, Teenage is a vibrant film worthy of seeing and debating.