The word “teenager” – and perhaps the very idea of a standalone generation between childhood and adulthood – was born in the middle of the last century. Matt Wolf’s bewitching documentary Teenage was co-scripted with Jon Savage from Savage’s same-name book. Through photos and archive film, accompanied by think-aloud voice-overs that mimic or relay the musings of the young, the film looks at the lives, faces and attitudes of adolescents in the first half of that century. Born to a giddying alternation between freedom and regimentation, youngsters in the lands we visit – America, England, Germany – survived two world wars and the barely less hectic peacetimes in between and either side.
Group identity is a dangerous thing. It proved a short trip from the birth of the Boy Scout movement to the rise of the Hitler Youth. Young people are easy game for the manipulation (even well-intended) of older people. But a growing awareness of that manipulation – a cumulative look at themselves, perhaps, in the mirror of the photos and film records we see here – helped to create the rebel impulse that became part of the word “teenager”’s modern DNA.
Dance and music, the film argues and illustrates, were a big part of young people’s rush to individualism and self-authentication: Charleston, jitterbug, rock and roll. “We want to be young before we’re old” are someone’s recorded words. The faces we see on screen eternalise that wish. They are faces poignantly caught between childlike-innocent and grown-up/wised-up, faces filled with hope even when forced towards despair by their elders and “betters”. The Nazi army recruited 13-year-olds in its last push to a delusional victory. If there’s a single message in Teenage – or a prevailing message among many – it’s that adults should stay away from the adolescents’ party; or else should be thoroughly frisked for their intentions before being invited in.