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by Kilian Melloy
Friday Mar 21, 2014

Until the last century, there was no separate cultural identity for the "teenager." Indeed, though human beings entered adolescence in their teens, there was no socially distinct intermediary period between childhood and adulthood; as Matt Wolf's film "Teenage" explains, many children entered the work force at age 12 and plunged right into workweeks of 70-plus hours (which included half-days on Saturdays).

Concerns over child labor eventually spurred laws and reforms, but the social upheaval of war posed similar situations, with kids as young as 13 entering military service in World War I. After the war, there was a growing generational divide -- and not just in the United States. Though one might think so, the youth movements that would lead to the rise of the teenager took root earlier overseas; this film, based on the book "Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875 - 1945," by Jon Savage, posits that the young in England and Germany were ahead of the curve of America's youths.

Indeed, the film notes, Hitler took advantage of the energy of Germany's teens, and co-opted youth groups; those who resisted inculcation were treated as criminals. In England and America, the ravages of the Great Depression spurred young people to restlessness. Though the film doesn't come out and say so, one gets the impression that on the one side an army of would-be conquerers was being formed, while on the other an equal young and vigorous defense force was incipient. Seen through this lens, World War II was also a youth phenomenon, of sorts, and as inevitable as the teen years themselves.

The film relies on archival footage and diary entries, but also takes pains to re-create the various cultures and social muse-en-scenes of the places and period. An English teen named Brenda Dean Paul is played by Leah Hennessey; though Paul became notorious as a drug fiend in the 1920s, she's seen here in color film that looks a little warped, but not terribly beaten up. (To the extent that the film does look like something from nearly a century ago is a matter of post-produciton artifice.) "She crashed her car," Ben Whishaw, in the character of a narrator known as the English Boy, explains, "and then she fell ill. Perhaps it was all the late nights -- or perhaps it was the abortion." Fairly shocking stuff even now, and positively scandalous back then.

Similarly, a teenager named Tommie who refused the Brown Shirts for rebellious larks of his own is depicted by a modern actor named Ben Rosenfield. "We were at the center of the government's plan," the German Girl (voiced by Julia Hummer) tells us. The future, after all, belongs to the young... and so to those who shape the young.

Things really get going for the American teen in America as a result of World War II. Though before America enters the war there's already an impatient youthful energy brewing (and new forms of music like swing become correspondingly popular), it's when young people venture abroad in the course of defending freedom that they gain exposure to the wider world; for teens of color, this is especially eye-opening. "In Europe they were treating us like equals," an African American teen voiced by Jessie Usher notes, "but back home was another story.... At times I just itch to take a crack at a white boy, just to see if he can take it like he can dish it."

It was the post-war baby boom that really generated an influx of teens in America, and post-war American prosperity that led to America's cultural dominance. The film barely gets there, arriving in the shadow of the mushroom cloud and in a haze of bobby-soxers screaming over Frank Sinatra. The roots of youth culture are exposed -- or one version of the story anyway -- and we're left with the impression that the rest is history for some other film.

So is this a documentary? An art film? Something as new to cinema as teens were to the 1920s, 30s, and 40s? An almost free-form visual essay, "Teenage" is thought provoking, sometimes hilarious, and ably made. What it does not make so well is a specific point, but we are talking about teens, after all, and perhaps asking for something more linear and object-oriented would be, well, beside any point that it may, or may not, actually have.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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