Director: Matt Wolf
Cast: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer
Spoilers Within: No
Consisting entirely of rare archival footage, Matt Wolf’s Teenage is a reflection on adolescence from the late 19th to the mid-20th century with thoughtful narration from Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw and others, all from original journal entries.
The documentary draws on the notion that teenagers existed before the 20th century, but were never understood as such until the Great War ended. This experimental thesis is as basic in idea as it seems, but is executed interestingly enough that this broad theme succeeds in forming a cohesive whole, even when it often veers off course. When focusing on unemployment, racial tensions, and age-ambiguous problems, it loses concentration and dips into problems that were faced by everyone, not just the teenagers at the centre of the decade-spanning stories.
The star-power in Malone, Whishaw etc. is smartly chosen, each of them tackling their genuine accounts with a subdued pathos that lends each story the authenticity it needs. Each ‘character’ relaying their versions of established historical fact keeps things compelling, touching on revolutionary artistic movements, newly formed music genres, and the boom of era-defining fashion crazes across the Western World. In perhaps what is the best – and most striking – of all is the anecdotes from German teens, speaking candidly of their leader – Adolf Hitler – whom they were convinced would take them and their people into paradise. These scenes are bookended by Western teens preparing for World War II, each revealing sobering and heartbreaking versions of the horrors they were witness to, giving a fascinating juxtaposition to the reverence of the leader of the Hitler Youth just moments before.
It could have been a monotonous, over-simplified documentary were it not for the smart editing, the calm narration and the skillful use of footage from the annals of history, and though it loses concentration more than once, it’s a welcome rumination on teenagerdom and everything that came with it.