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Documentary Review - Teenage

A look at the development of the teenager over the last century.

Directed by: Matt Wolf
Featuring: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw,  Jessie Usher, Julia Hummer


It's rare for a documentary to come along with which everyone can claim to have some relation to its subject. Matt Wolf's Teenage is one such doc that can make this unique boast. We've all been teenagers, no matter how distant that time may now seem. Some of you reading this may well be a current member of such a demographic.
The concept of the teenager is something we now take for granted and, in the western world at least, it can seem like the world culturally revolves around that market. A huge swath of the music in the charts, the bestsellers on book shelves and the movies playing in multiplexes seem designed to appeal to teenagers, at the exclusion of everyone else.
As Wolf's film shows, things weren't always this way. The movie begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, a time when child labor, something whose rejection we now hold up as a watermark of whether a society can truly call itself civilized, was still socially accepted. The jump from child to adult was instantaneous once kids hit the age of puberty, children as young as ten suddenly thrust into the role of family breadwinner.
Fortunately, the twentieth century brought with it an age of reform and child labor was outlawed across Europe and North America. This created a new phenomenon. Teens found themselves with time on their hands, intent on enjoying life to the full before the realities and responsibilities of adulthood kicked in.
Teenage is based on John Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, 1875-1945 and roughly follows this timeline, extending slightly into the post-war era. The film tells its tale through diary entries from four teenagers; two Americans (one a middle class white girl, the other a young African-American male), an English boy and a German girl. Two of these, the American girl and English boy (voiced by Malone and Wishaw), are desperate to stand out from the crowd and rebel. In contrast, the other two (Usher and Hummer) want nothing more than to belong to a wider society. While Usher joins the boy scouts, one of the rare American social institutions not to enforce segregation at the time, Hummer joins the Hitler Youth. At first the two organizations seem to serve the same purpose, but of course we all know how the latter turned out.
It's all too easy to moan about the generations that follow our own but the truth is that humanity doesn't evolve when teenagers listen to their parents, otherwise we'd still be living, socially, in the dark ages. Wolf's documentary reminds us of this and may make you look at those kids you struggle to understand in a new light. With its fantastic collection of archive footage, it's an at times fascinating historical document.
7/10


Eric Hillis

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