Plays June 5-8 at Winnipeg Cinematheque
Is everyone else sick of teenage romanticism, or is it just me? For decades, the parlance of teen films has been a deadly serious tone suggesting that everything that is happening to us right now is very important. Even when I was a teenager (which wasn’t that long ago) this attitude never spoke to me. Maybe it’s personal taste, but it never reflected my teenage experience, and anyone who operated with a Breakfast Club-level of self-seriousness seemed silly.
Maybe that’s why Matt Wolf’s Teenage feels like such a cynical act of pandering. This documentary from the director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell combines archival materials, new footage, and saccharine narration to illustrate the beginnings of teenage culture and youth movements, from turn-of-the-century to WWII. A lot of the archival film and photos is actually pretty interesting. But that makes the tacky new footage stick out like a sore thumb. It’s obviously modern, but it’s all been filtered and desaturated to look adequately Instagram’d to satisfy the hipness-barometer of the most gullible viewers.
And the narration. Ugh. A collection of actors, including Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw (obviously in their 30s), speak not as specific teens in a specific time, but as some sort of all-encompassing personification of teenage identity, or something obnoxious like that. Whatever movement they’re outlining (flappers, swing dancers, etc), they provide no insight into individuality or the growing experiences that teen years are actually about. Instead, they make vague proclamations about how revolutionary their fads are.
But the film does everything to undercut the historical importance of the movements it celebrates. A score by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, while interesting, means the sequences about jazz don’t contain any jazz music. The bravery of anti-fascist resistance groups is reduced to generic angst. “We’re all teens, we’re the same,” isn’t an interesting observation. Individual accomplishments are. Teenage takes the wrong approach, and makes thrilling history seem boring.