AFI Docs Review: “Teenage”

Filmmaker Matt Wolf defies convention to explore the relatively recent concept of the teenager.

By: Michael Gaynor

Teenage is a different kind of documentary. It’s not an “issue” picture, trying to explain, investigate, or solve some big controversy. There are no talking heads and no narration by the filmmakers. It isn’t the story of a single person or event. So what exactly is it?

On its surface the film tells the story of the “teenager,” examining the role young people have played in culture, politics, and historical affairs since the advent of the term. Based on the Jon Savage book of the same name, it begins at the turn of the 20th century with the first child labor laws in the US, which freed young people to discover themselves. And so, adolescence was born.

From that launching point, the documentary weaves the tales of four representative teenagers from the first half of the century: the hard-partying Brit who became a cautionary tale, a Hitler Youth member manipulated by a dictator, a rebellious German captivated by overseas music and culture, and a black Boy Scout trying to find his place. They were some of the first true teenagers, and their stories of facing teenage problems are depicted through archival footage and diary readings.

But, the most important facet to the documentary is the mood it creates. Its soundtrack, by Bradford Cox of the indie band Deerhunter, is ethereal and spacey. Informative subtitles don’t pop-up onscreen to explain where a certain piece of footage is from or even who is speaking—the images simply come and go for viewers to make sense of themselves. It all serves to give the film an ambient, dreamlike quality.

The filmmaker, Matt Wolf, has done several short and full-length documentaries, including Wild Combination, about an avant-garde cellist and I Remember, about artist Joe Brainard. He imbues Teenage with the same rebelliousness as its subject matter, rejecting the familiar tenets of what a documentary can or should be. He hurtles through decades with minimal context or explanation, depicting the role of youth from World War I to the jazz era to the Great Depression and beyond. He holds the viewer’s hand for none of it.

In most cases, the approach succeeds. The documentary’s themes are so universal, and some of the images so powerful, that they’re best left for the viewers to silently contemplate for themselves. When the camera lingers on a shell-shocked World War I soldier as he twitches sporadically while gazing into the distance with haunted eyes, we don’t need a talking head in the next scene to explain the impact of war on the young.

Ultimately, your opinion on Teenage will depend most on how far you’re willing to stretch the definition of a documentary. The film isn’t typical documentary festival fare, and, at times, it seems less interested in informing you than it is in evoking a feeling in you—not a book, but a song. It is experimental and freeing, exactly what a film about youth should be.

Playing June 20, 1:15 PM at the National Museum of American History, and June 22, 5:15 PM at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.