Best New Movies

Teenage – Movie Review

Teenage Film

Dir: Matt Wolf

Running time: 78 mins.

Release Date: January 24th

Review by Sean Kingston

The “teenager”, as we accept the definition today, is a demographic generally accepted as having been born out of the 1950’s, most significantly from the music and culture of The United States. The tremendous amount of human energy released in the years following World War II gave rise to a new generation; a prized few years, unencumbered by the responsibilities of adulthood, but shirked of the innocence of the child.

That was the effect, director Matt Wolf sets out to show us the cause. Beginning with the early days of the twentieth century when the difference between “child” and “adult” was your twelfth birthday, the film details the years after which developed countries, those of Europe and the US, began creating labour laws and mandating minimum working ages. In doing so they created a hitherto seen before generation of youth, desperate to carve out their own identity, social structure and value system.

Utilising archive material, diary entries presented in voiceover and brilliantly recreated 16mm home- movie footage, Wolf details the years leading up to and during the Second World War, through the eyes of four disparate but similarly motivated teenagers. Brenda Dean Paul, a 1920’s “Bright Young Thing”, Tommie Scheel, a German “Swing Kid”, fascinated by the music and fashion emerging from America, Melita Maschmann, Tommie’s contemporary in nation only and a dedicated member of the Hitler youth, and Warren Wall, an African American Boy Scout. What we learn is that, though culturally worlds apart, all four adolescents have the same basic desire; to distinguish themselves from the generation that preceded them and to play a role in the shaping of their own future.

What the film has going for it lies mainly in its construction. Superb editing and sound design, combined with a unique and energetic score by Bradford Cox (Deerhunter) make it very difficult to get bored. As a piece of historical document, it is something that has never really been put on screen before, certainly not in this fashion, and the stories of the four adolescents seeking an identity amidst the older generation’s cries of hooliganism, the war and racial segregation, are always thought- provoking.

But in several ways this is also the biggest stumbling block. It is likely that Wolf found himself with more material than he could fit into his work, but the end result feels incomplete and ultimately surface-skimming. There is very little room to actually engage with the piece, as we aren’t really given an argument. There is nothing to defend or rail against, it just is. One young girl in the opening montage tells us that she thinks she “…should like to be famous”. It’s a moment that reminds us that the values of the teenager haven’t necessarily changed in nearly a century, but this idea is never really explored. Nor is the fact that being a “teenager” remains a privilege of the adolescence of the developed world, a still largely imagined luxury not afforded to many of their peers in Africa, Asia or the Middle East today.

But perhaps that’s asking to dilute further a narrative that already spans half a century. Ultimately, the film is a beautifully constructed, consistently interesting piece of work that brings to the screen a corner of history previously undocumented.

Teenage opens at the IFI on Jan 24th.

The Birth of Youth Culture

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