Film Title: Teenage
Director: Matt Wolf
Starring: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Usher
Running Time: 78 min
Two original talents, born 20 years apart, have come together to deliver a diverting collage on the pre-history of the modern teenager. Matt Wolf, director of an excellent film on unclassifiable musician Arthur Russell, and Jon Savage, author of the similarly titled source book, walk us through the story of angry youth from the turn of the century to its years of triumph in the 1950s.
Though low-key, Teenage is unquestionably a very classy operation. Bradford Cox, leading force in hipster heroes Deerhunter, offers original music and slyly chosen tracks by the likes of Neu!. Hot young actors such as Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw intone contemporaneous accounts over touching archive footage and some less impressive re-enactments.
The film ends up being a patchwork. But it does tell something like a cohesive story. From a Babel comprising Nazi youth, bright young things and swing kids, an impression emerges of strong youths determined to forge the future on their own (occasionally misguided) terms. Every generation is different. Every generation is the same. Unshackled from any dominant omniscient voiceover, the viewer is free to draw his own conclusions from the cascading testimonies.
Sometimes those stories pass by a little too quickly; clocking in at just 78 minutes, Teenage has to cram a great deal of history into a very small space. And the unnecessary new footage – actors filmed hazily in box-fresh costumes – sits very uncomfortably with the home movies and newsreels.
The ends result feels just a little insubstantial. At times, it looks more like a visual accompaniment to Savage’s book than a standalone film. But the stories are moving and the editing finds many original rhythms. The project is, ultimately, more than odd enough to set itself aside from typical BBC4 time-filler.
If the same team were to tackle England’s Dreaming, Savage’s definitive account of punk, that would make many of us very happy indeed.