Today’s teenagers may be their own industry, but the idea that there’s a distinctive time between childhood and adulthood is still relatively new.
Filmmaker Matt Wolf explores this concept, and the genesis of western youth culture, in Teenage, an intoxicating, genre-bending portrait of teenage life inspired by Jon Savage’s eponymous book. With never-before-seen archival footage, recreations, an original score from Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, and voiceovers from the likes of Ben Whishaw and Jena Malone, Wolf creates an experimental, creative non-fiction collage that covers the turn of the century through 1945.
In retelling the stories of boxcar children, victory girls, Bright Young Things, zoot suits, and other youth movements of the past century, Teenage finds a universal story of discontent, alienation, feverish energy, and rebellion.
This is not a staid, textbook history lesson, though. Wolf and Savage wanted it to feel as if a teenager were telling the story. It’s all about mood and aesthetics. Executive producer Jason Schwartzman compares the avant-garde storytelling to a quilt. “It’s patches of things slammed up against each other,” he told EW. “Matt and Jon wanted to make the movie in a very unusual way. It’s against the grain. It’s very hand-made.”
Schwartzman had known Wolf through his previous film, Wild Combination, and an eventual collaboration with the hip boutique Opening Ceremony. He’d also long admired Jon Savage’s writing — particularly his 1991 Sex Pistols and punk rock history England’s Dreaming — and had already encountered Savage’s Teenage before Wolf approached him to come on board. Needless to say, Schwartzman was excited to get involved.
The film wafts through the first half of the 20th century and uses the recreation of four teenage voices from history to propel its narrative forward. The stories include those of Brenda Dean Paul, a Bright Young Thing, aspiring actress and junkie; Hitler Youth Melita Maschmann; Tommie Scheel, a German swing kid; and Warren Wall, an African-American Boy Scout. The filmmakers tried to make these western voices as diverse as possible.
Schwartzman was particularly fond of the zoot suit story. “I’m into the dancing and the power of music through that time. You really just see the amazing beauty of youth,” he said. “They just have so much energy and so much emotion and they’ve found a place where they can go let it out and dance and play music.”
Teenage may be more impressionistic than factual, but that allows it to resonate beyond the confines of its chosen time period. “My teenage history wasn’t unusual. It was kind of a classic thing. I was a very moody person, I didn’t get along with girls a lot. I didn’t do anything too crazy,” said Schwartzman. “But my mom would say things like ‘this, what you’re feeling, this is just part of it. You’re just the next group of people to feel this way and they’ve felt like this for years before you.’ I know she was trying to make me feel better, but it just made me feel terrible. You feel so different. You feel like an alien. But you also want to feel that way. You don’t want to know that what you’re feeling isn’t new. Now it’s kind of nice to know that there’s a history and a place,” he said.
“Every decade of your life has its clichés and most of them are true, but those teenage years are totally confused and placeless. In this movie you get to see that everyone felt that way.”
Teenage is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, and Oscilloscope will be releasing the film in more cities in the coming weeks.