Prior to 1904 and the National Child Labor Committee that was formed in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, there was no such thing as a period of adolescence. One was either a kid or on the payroll, with teenagers frequently punching in for 74-hour work weeks.
From Robert Baden-Powell’s boy scout manifesto that helped pave the way for Das Hitler Jugen, jerky, shell-shocked vets pointedly intercut with a flapping Ruby Keeler, and “Victory Girls” begetting bobbysoxers, Teenage charts a four-decade panacea of pop culture that culminates with the arrival of the first youth marketing boom that hit toward the tail-end of World War II.
Using punk author and co-scripter John Savage’s best-seller, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture, as a springboard, British filmmaker Matt Wolf combines period photographs, diary entries, educational propaganda, home movies, and last (and certainly least), dramatic re-creation to document the invention and subsequent rise of that time-honored consumer cash cow, the American teenager.
Lead researcher Rosemary Rotondi and her staff deserve equal billing for hours spent unspooling miles of archival footage that would eventually assist in earmarking the individual storylines. With four narrators to guide us (Jena Malone, Ben Wishaw, Julia Hummer, and Jessie Usher), the filmmakers should have quit at turning subjective quotes into dialog as a means of shaping a narrative.
If it can’t be done right, it shouldn’t be done at all. Wolf’s period mockups of various real-life personas are no match for the truth. It’s bad enough that the majority of the footage is presented in the wrong aspect ratio to accommodate the forgeries. No matter how many artfully arranged flash frames, sun flares, digitally induced emulsion scratches, and forged jumps in the gate that come our way, the film stocks unfailingly refuse to mesh, leaving not one convincingly seamless cut from old footage to new and back again in the entire piece.
With as many as 100 archives to pick through — and only 78 minutes to fill — this reliance on actors for docudrama portraits occasionally casts a clinical net over the proceedings, something that Julien Temple’s ebullient found-footage celebration, London — The Modern Babylon, worked around with the greatest of ease.
In this case, content outweighs form and the lessons on display in this captivating adult look back at an eruption of youth make it a must-see for parents of kids who think their generation cooked up teen angst.