Director, Matt Wolf understands that adolescence is a relatively new concept; the idea of the teenager is something that was created in the early 20th century. Before that there was simply childhood and adulthood but this middle phase was something that worked its way into, initially American, culture to give these youths a chance to get out of the workhouses and to live their life and understand that there was a world out there for them to discover and enjoy. As cliched as that sounds, it is well documented in history that prior to these times children were forced to grow up quickly – they went from their homes to the workhouses, to having families but a number of extenuating circumstances found the world changing quickly and the youths who became the teenagers were the first groups to recognise and take advantage of this. The future seemed like something intelligible; work around technology was increasing, the social sphere for the youth was becoming more accessible and without a doubt, the biggest change came in the form of war.
Wolf’s documentary is aware of all of this and tries its hardest to highlight these issues along with a multitude of others; both positive and negative, that worked in culture to help the creation of the adolescent. He portrays a time when an emphasis on going out and having a good time was starting to become more important alongside a feeling that it was okay to become more in touch with your own sexuality and not have to do as the generation before you did. Through a variety of diary entries, Wolf brings together a collection of voices that embody a changing generation.
The voices are provided by Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Usher & Julia Hummer, who each play a different ‘character’, all of whom experienced very different worlds around them but also found themselves in the same changing times. Whilst this technique of listening to these disembodied voices, does at first, allow a more direct emotional involvement from the audience because they simply have just the voice to go by rather than an image to go alongside, it does feel rather repetitive by the end. Alongside these entries, Wolf cuts in images and archive footage to represent what each experience is talking about. They go from the serious (watching the children in the workhouses), to the fun (what a night out could consist of) to the simply funny (an early example of what would become ‘the after school special’ with a recently coined teenager being caught for some misdemeanour or other) and overall the experience is quite fulfilling but once the point has been made about the creation of the teenager, Wolf is quite content with just showing the audience a scrapbook filled with these memories, which does seem to lose it’s way quite quickly.
What Teenage does beautifully is create an atmosphere, specifically about a moment in time, which lends itself to multiple explanations and repercussions that are still reverberating today. He manages to balance out the more intimate moments in the dialogue with the archive footage creating a sense of a journey that this generation (and these voices) took from the early beginnings of the teenager, all the way through to something that was just generally accepted.
Whilst that is the documentary at it’s best, unfortunately it fails to follow through with any real concise history covering the multiple generations that it aims to look at. Whilst Wolf sets up his documentary as a study of the teenager, it simply becomes a much smaller and intimate case study of certain characteristics of this newly forged generation.