"Grand in scope but intimate and simple in its design..."
The relative success or failure of a documentary usually hinges on the story it is attempting to tell. We've seen a number of documentaries in recent years that were perfectly well made, fall flat because of filmmakers' failure to establish a proper narrative or adequately make use of their subject matter. It is a breath of fresh air then, to see American writer-director Matt Wolf pluck a fascinating story from seemingly the broadest of subjects. In Teenage, Wolf tells of the post-war rise of the teenager and, in just 78 minutes, manages to show how these new generations of youngsters shaped the course of 20th century history.
'Teenagers' as a concept only really rose to prominence in the post-war glow of the 1950s, but Teenage chooses to focus on the first half of the 20th century, following those who laid the foundations for what would later explode in the 50s and 60s. Splitting its time between Britain, Germany, and America, the film is constructed from a mix of archive footage and modern-shot character studies based on diary entries by adolescents of the time. First-person narration is skilfully performed by a number of actors (Ben Whishaw, Jena Malone), giving the impression that the story is being told by teenagers of the era.
The modern shots are brilliantly filmed, often indistinguishable from the archive footage but it's the latter that truly makes the film shine. What must have been countless hours of research has turned up some extraordinary scenes from as far back as the early days of film. Every shot with its own story to tell, the filmmakers have masterfully edited it all together to represent the highest and lowest moments of life between the wars. From the turn of the century child labourers, through to the beginning of the 50s via flappers, the jitterbug, and the rise and fall of National Socialism and the Hitler Youth.
Teenage is a documentary grand in scope but intimate and simple in its design, an achievement for which the film's creators deserve to be praised. It tells a broad story which could have easily gotten lost on any number of tangents and keeps it cohesive and interesting. The only disappointment is that the film doesn't expand beyond the mid-point of the century. This could comfortably have been the first of a multi-part TV documentary, Teenage's mix of archive and contemporary footage is such a joy to watch that it would be fantastic if the filmmakers were given an opportunity to expand this concept further.