Wolf’s movie explores a 20th Century teenagers

H. Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock Images.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock Images.

By Gina Scialabba

The Guardsman

The very word teenager can send a shudder up your spine. It’s a tumultuous time of exploration, raging hormones, excessive risk taking, mood swings, figuring out the big, bad world and how to carve your place in it.

Matt Wolf’s new documentary “Teenage” gives audiences a glimpse of youth culture during the first half of the 20th century. It’s filmed as a mixture of archival and newsreel footage interspersed with fake amateur film reels.

Now, more than ever, teenagers are a dominant force in the global marketplace, saturating popular culture, marketing research, advertising campaigns and consumer spending. If Don Draper could only see it now.

But, what if being a teenager didn’t always exist? What if that transition period from childhood to adulthood was invented?

Wolf’s premise is that being a teenager is a relatively new concept brought about because of the industrial revolution, a change in child labor laws and more leisure time.

His hypothesis goes like this: Throughout history, teenagers didn’t exist. You were either a child or an adult. There wasn’t a concept of pre-teen, tween or even teenager. Most children were put to work at a very early age unless they were in the bourgeoisie “Downton Abbey” crowd. (Then, you simply got married).

Yet once child labor ended, a new stage of life appeared. Adults and children alike struggled to define what it meant to be in an adult-child purgatory.

Enter the lost-youth movements of the early part of the century. Not the hippies or the hipsters, but the youth culture of the Flappers, Boxcar Children, Jitterbugs, Victory Girls, Hitler Youth and countless others.

Wolf presents us with a living collage of rare footage. Watching Hitler mesmerize an entire generation of idealistic German boys with the Nazi ideology of racial and national cleansing and ultimately perpetuate the “thousand-year Reich” was powerful.

The documentary is shot in a colorful, dreamlike format. Parts of it become confusing as Wolf switches between the youth cultures of the U.S., Germany and Great Britain.


He also uses a particularly interesting story-telling device, that of multiple narrators, in this case the voices of Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer and Jessie Usher. In documentaries, we are accustomed to hearing one person’s authoritative voice gently guide us through the film.

Here, Wolf intersperses four different narrative voices, each trying to capture the lost generations. It’s a little jumbled and sometimes far-reaching. It’s quite a feat to capture the entire history of teenagedom in 78 short minutes, but it mostly works.

Should you go see it? Certainly. “Teenage” is solid filmmaking, with a very interesting hypothesis. You’ll certainly have something to talk about afterward.


If you go……

Run Time: 78 Minutes

Genre: Documentary/History

Opening Date: Bay Area April 25, 2014

Directed by Matt Wolf

Written by Jon Savage, Matt Wolf

Based on the Book: “Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1845–1945” by Jon Savage

Featuring the Voices of

Jena Malone

Ben Whishaw

Julia Hummer

Jessie Usher

The Guardsman