Conventional wisdom has it that the concept of the teenager was born with American bobby-soxers. But as Jon Savage’s rich cultural history book “Teenage” showed, through extensive research and leaps of insight, it’s an idea with much deeper roots, stretching back to late 19th century Europe.
Matt Wolf’s documentary by the same name, co-written with Savage, is a far less complex inquiry than the book on which it’s based, and it can feel repetitive and oversimplified. Aesthetically, though, it has an aching, dreamlike pull, constructing a panoramic view of history through the prism of collective and personal memory.
The collage-style essay interlaces archival footage and stills, from the rare to the invented (the latter in the form of scenes and tableaux that convey the personality and milieu of people for whom there’s no existing footage). Voice-over narration, some of it read by Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, quotes from anonymous teens’ diary entries and frequently makes obvious rhetorical points.
The narrators also give voice to four real people whose emblematic stories are woven into the cine-tapestry: British flapper, Hitler Youth member, German proto-punk swing fanatic and African American Boy Scout. This new footage is meant to look like something out of the vaults, complete with degraded 16-mm film stock. It’s pretty, but its inclusion raises questions that distract from the movie’s subject. However accomplished in terms of design and mood, the real/faux hybrid aspect of “Teenage” doesn’t deepen its thesis.
But as Wolf traces youth culture from 1904 through the atomic blasts ending World War II — from factory drudges to sacrificed soldiers — he gives form to a ghost in the machine of the modern nation. Teen spirit, the film affectingly suggests, is shaped by a keen awareness of mortality.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.