Give credit to a filmmaker for trying something different. Matt Wolf’s “Teenage” is a nonfiction overview of the rise of “adolescence” as a cultural concept, group identity, and marketing demographic. Since it wants to be art rather than information, though, the movie works hard to create an air of impressionistic social poetry.
Regrettably, it’s terrible poetry: a roughly chronological jumble of archival footage, unconvincing period reenactments, gauzy voice-overs, and half-baked ideas that makes one yearn for the stolid dullness of a History Channel documentary.
The tragedy is that the film’s source material is fully baked. Jon Savage’s 2007 book “Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945” is an invaluable and meticulously researched exploration of how the notion of teenagers as a distinct developmental and sociological phenomenon didn’t even exist until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prompted by child labor laws and the rise of mandatory education. Before then, there was childhood and adulthood, the dividing line being when you started working (and the earlier the better).
Savage, whose 1991 “England’s Dreaming” is still the definitive book on the Punk era, is skilled at knitting together tiny, telling details and big ideas on the page. As a co-screenwriter (with Wolf), he has appeared to give in to his most romanticized ideas of who teenagers are and how they defined themselves from before World War I to the dawn of the Cold War.
“Teenage” flits aimlessly from the United States to England to Germany as it rolls forward through the decades, spotlighting rebellious adolescent scenes worth knowing about — Brenda Dean Paul and the “bright young people” of Jazz Age Great Britain, Germany’s proto-hippie Wandervogel or “wandering birds,” all-American jitterbug fanatics — but never serving a larger point other than alienation from the mainstream of parental/parochial authority.
Wolf touches on the Boy Scouts, racial segregation, the 1939 World’s Fair, youthful idolization of Rudolph Valentino and Adolph Hitler, sub-debs, and much, much more, linking them not with any thematic connective tissue but rather with hodges and podges of “direct experience.” We hear the writings and thoughts — real? made up? who knows? — of kids who were supposedly there, read in dreamy narration by actors like Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, and Alden Ehrenreich over a soundtrack of bruised indie rock. “Adults were in a panic, but we were the ones who would have to inherit this mess.” “To be young was the style — and it was for sale.” If Terrence Malick made documentaries, this is what they’d sound like.
There are reenactments, too: studiously re-created scenes of frolicking youth in period clothes, with fake period scratches on the digital footage. These are interspersed with genuine archival clips but they’re easy to spot, and they have the unintended air of kids playing dress-up. Sarah Polley got up to some of the same tricks in last year’s brilliant “Stories We Tell,” but she was making specific, profound points about memory and family narratives. “Teenage” seems only to be saying that youthful alienation is unchanging, which is a trite point and a wrongheaded one.
Perhaps the most critical of Savage’s themes — that the teenager is an American invention, part of a much larger 20th-century cultural tidal wave — is raised only in passing. “Teenage” has a rare opportunity to explore the cultural events that enabled an ignored social group to define itself through idealism and self-absorption. Instead, the movie’s an uncritical celebration that, at its worst, panders to any current teenager curious enough to take a look. There’s a real story here, but you’ll find it in Savage’s book. “Teenage,” the movie, seems content to daydream in front of a mirror.