Sydney Underground Film Festival Review: Teenage (USA & Germany, 2013)


It may be hard to believe but there was a point in history where the idea of the teenager didn’t exist. You were either a child or an adult, there was no other option. Teenage is a documentary that is directed by Matt Wolf and is adapted from the book, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture by Jon Savage. The film tracks the evolution of the teenager and is an ambitious and artistic time capsule that is not a definitive article by any means.

Teenage lovingly draws together old photographs and clips from newsreels, TV, films and advertisements, plus newly re-created scenes that are in keeping with the periods. The film focuses on the time between 1900 and 1950 and sadly fails to address the subject’s biggest point (the 1960s and beyond). As a result the overall outlook tends to err more on the side of bubbly exuberance than on the modern teenage phenomenon of depression and angst.

The old photographs and stills are combined with voiceovers based on old diary entries and interviews with teenagers from the time. Actors like Ben Whishaw, Jena Malone, Jessie Usher and Julia Hummer represent the teens that are: an English male, an American female, an African-American male and a German female. This is the film’s other pitfall, as it only draws on the experiences of teens living in those three countries, not any others. Another issue is that the first-person narratives delivered by voiceovers ae supposed to resonate with the audience, but on a few occasions these feel artificial and hollow.

The film makes some sweeping generalisations about teens from the boy scouts, the bright young things, the jitterbugs and the Hitler Youth. At times the term “teenager” seems a bit of a stretch (especially in one case describing a 19-year old). But it is a bold look at youth culture, work, politics and war, although there is a tendency for these incidents to be overshadowed by the history of the time, rather than offer any real insight about the teenagers’ true experiences.

The film’s big positive is its contemporary score by Bradford Cox (Deerhunter). The music is good at setting the different moods with dark atmospherics resembling New Order’s work for the gloomier times to more upbeat music during the more vibrant periods. Another great addition is a clip of Judy Garland singing “I’m An In-Between” about being older than a girl but not yet a woman.

Teenager is ultimately a dreamy and episodic anthropological study and poetic, visual essay. It’s fast pace will hold your attention and leave you wanting more (perhaps even a whole series on the topic). This stream-of-conscious style documentary is an intimate portrait about our pubescent years that is a little confused about the point it’s trying to make. There is no question however, that this project smells like teen spirit.


Teenage screens on September 6 and 7 as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival. For more information and tickets please visit:


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