The documentarylike Teenage takes its cues from its subject. Preferring sensation to science and dreaminess to hard data, it beguiles as much as it maddens. Directed by Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell) and based on punk biographer Jon Savage’s 2007 book Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, this is an artistic consideration of the conceptualization of the teenager – as a distinct period in life, and as a significant social and political influencer. If that sentence put you to sleep, snap back to attention: Teenage is no lecture, and the truer analogies – the dear-diary confessional, rebellious rock, angsty poetry – are all adolescent-approved. (Strengthening the case: Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Atlas Sound composed the score.)
Teenage presents a swatch of Western culture (mostly American, British, and German) from the turn of the 20th century to World War II – the formative years in the development of the teenager. Subcultures are evoked, if not rigorously explored, including the Bright Young People, Swing Kids, and Victory Girls. Voiceovers (spoken by Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone, among others) narrate unfolding events in first person, affecting an eternal/universal teenage voice. (On the establishment’s reaction to boho youth culture, Whishaw is priceless: “They made it into …” – pause to convey the withering disdain of the young – “a movement.”) This rush of history, poetically imparted, is fascinating but incomplete: The film affords the Jewish people – many of whom, yes, were teenagers – little more than an aside, while Oswald Mosley pops up in a cross-dressing home movie he made as a bright young thing, but perplexingly isn’t name-checked during a later bit about British youth and fascism.
The archival footage is mesmerizing stuff, articulately edited by Joe Beshenkovsky; a transition from World War I shell-shock survivors’ nervous, arrhythmic tics to jitterbugging feet says plenty about the postwar, youth-gone-wild mentality. But be wary. Not all footage is made equally. Wolf dramatizes the stories of four emblematic teenagers, including the morphine-addled deb Brenda Dean Paul and Hitler Youth member Melita Maschmann, with professional actors and manipulates the images to appear dated, scratched – and sometimes indistinguishable from the real thing. Teenage is an art film – an engrossing one at that – so it isn’t required to respect Queensberry rules vis-à-vis documentaries. Still, those intentionally obfuscating dramatic reenactments have a ripple effect, calling into question everything else. That haunted shell-shock survivor, helplessly swatting at his nose? Real or not real? And was that not Oswald in a dress? By Teenage’s end, its impressionistic ethos leaves little more than a smudge.