Joshua Reviews Matt Wolf’s Teenage [Theatrical Review]


Teenagers today are seen in a handful of ways. Entitled, technologically driven and socially as frigid as one of the frappes they seem to be consuming ad nauseum, they have become fodder for ridicule, a continuous wave of condescending think pieces and enough dirty looks from old generations to make them as jaded as a demographic could possibly be. However, the point in life between childhood and adulthood as defined as those teenage years haven’t always been acknowledged.

Sure, the ages of 13-19 have always existed, but them being denoted as those years between being a child and an adult is a relatively modern idea. Really coming to light near the middle of the 20th Century, we as a society have now fully merged this section of one’s life into our ideas surrounding the human experience and our development as a society.

And now, it’s the subject for a new documentary from Matt Wolf, itself proof that the world of non-fiction cinema is itself as vital as this film’s subject matter. Entitled Teenage, the film looks at the rise of this demographic and these handful of years, as they go from just another part of childhood/adulthood to its own, extremely singular bracket of human development. Inspired by Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Creation Of Youth Culture, the film is an expressionistic bit of non-fiction storytelling, taking an interesting and rather breathtaking road in telling its story.

Using a beautiful blend of source footage and some rather gorgeous re-creations, the film is told entirely through narration by some rather famous voices. Led by names like Jena Malone and Ben Wishaw, the film introduces us to a handful of men and women, their lives told entirely by diary entries and these actors reading them. Be it a German youth, a black American youth or a jazz-age teen with a rather shady existence, we become privy to a handful of men and women, from all walks of life, to show us not only the birth of the teenager but also the birth of what is possibly the most important and formative moment in a human’s existence.

Cinematically, this film is a tour-de-force. Understandably a bit slow and arguably “breezy,” the film does feel very much like a rather methodical character piece. Driven entirely by the men and women we meet, and the story of their lives, the film doesn’t get heavy into facts, instead focusing on the experiential side of growing up during this time period. Ostensibly the polar opposite of a film from a fact-driven director like Charles Ferguson, this entirely narrative driven picture is a deeply insightful and aesthetically poetic look into the birth and growth of a bracket of a human being’s experience in life. From the change in child labor, to the rise of the world changing “jazz age” to the impact of both World Wars on the youth experience, the film is a ground level account of the world on the brink of complete and utter sociological change.

And it’s told a vital as one could possibly imagine a film like this being told. Blending the source footage and perfectly stylized recreations seamlessly, the film feels deeply intimate and while it doesn’t hold much weight in facts, it is a wonderfully painted portrait of a world on the edge. All the voice actors here bring a lot of life to their characters, and aren’t household names, at least not enough to ultimately detract from any humanity they may give to their characters. Fill a film like this with names like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, and you’d have a film that may be far less emotionally resonant, and one that would not be as bewilderingly relatable as Wolf’s picture is in this form.

While the picture does feel a bit short, a bit too brisk pacing wise, and like the opening chapter of a story that needs many more entries, Teenage is a wonder of a film, and a minor masterpiece for a genre that is apparently not willing to stop breaking ground. Yet another form-challenging documentary in an age where they seem to come every Friday, this stands up as a picture that is both unbelievably entrancing emotionally, and deeply insightful intellectually, while all being wrapped in an aesthetically beautiful body from a new cinematic voice that we all need to pay major attention to going forward.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.