The tale of the teenager began way before Marlon Brando or James Dean graced the silver screen. Matt Wolf’s documentary Teenage, based on Jon Savage‘s book, tells the poetic and tumultuous story of the invention of the teenager circa 1975. There’s rare archival footage of Jitterbugs, Boy Scouts, Bright Young Things and Hitler Youths, and dreamy readings by Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw and others. Wolf’s film goes deep into the pre-history of the teen thus offering a new perspective.

The Players:

  • Directors: Matt Wolf
  • Screenwriters: Jon Savage, Matt Wolf
  • Narrated By: Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Jessie Usher, Julia Hummer
  • Original Music by: Bradford Cox

The Plot:

Matt Wolf’s Teenage centers on the generation that was born during the Industrial Revolution, when the generational gap between adults and their children was at its widest. Whether in America, England or Germany, whether party-crazed Flappers or hip Swing Kids, zealous Nazi Youth or frenzied Sub-Debs, it didn’t matter – they were all “teenagers.”

The Good:

  • Rare Archival Footage: Teenage is woven with rare and beautiful footage of England’s Bright Young Things, the Edelweiss Pirates, the Hitler Youth, the Swing Kids and much more. It took Wolf four years to gather these images, and that’s a testament to his filmmaking. He’s extremely meticulous about what he uses, but in the end, it all flows together with musical harmony.
  • Musical Tone: Though this film is not a musical history or a biography about a musician, it unravels like a mixtape or an old record. And that’s intentional, though not obvious. This musical undertone goes to show that music is a very important element in the lives of young people, and has always been there to help define generations, old and new.
  • The Topic/Recreations: Wolf’s film isn’t about typical teenagers, but rather a story of extraordinary teenagers who helped define the gap between children and adults. Wolf chose to have a film free of talking heads, and recreated scenes from the lives of four extroardinary teens – Brenda Dean Paul, a self-destructive Bright Young Thing; Melita Maschmann, an idealistic Hitler Youth; Tommie Scheel, a rebellious German Swing Kid; and Warren Wall, a black Boy Scout. These powerful recreations convey Wolf’s message that “the young ones are the ones who shape the future,” and they’re a nice personal touch.
  • The Narrations: The narrations of  Malone, Whishaw, Jessie Usher and Julia Hummer have a powerful effect. They wash over you like song lyrics, and it’s a bit addicting. The readings feel personal, and the end result is mesmerizing because they help us understand the lives of these teens who are long gone.


Wolf’s Teenage documentary is anything but superficial. Though brief, it manages to be a powerful and in-depth account of the history of youth culture, which began way before Rebel Without a Cause. This film is a beautiful living collage, complete with vintage footage, personal narrations and a powerful score by Bradford Cox.

The Rating: 10/10

Teenage opens in select theaters March 14. 

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Will you be watching Teenage?