Jigsaw Youth

Sarah Nicole Prickett on Matt Wolf's Teenage

Matt Wolf, Teenage, 2013, 16 mm and 8 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes. Rose Schlossberg, Elizabeth Raiss, and Alden Ehrenreich. Photo: Rose Holmer.

“TEEN” IS NOT AN AGE, or if it were, the Western adolescing could be neither an identity nor an interest group. Yet in nation-places from the US to Russia, the figure of “teenager,” putatively anyone aged thirteen to nineteen, didn’t exist until World War I, at which point those who matched the description were rendered virtual immigrants. Invented, they were promptly feared. And rationally so: What monster has the body of an adult, the mind of a child, and the heart of an animal? From 1920-ish to 1945, teenagers were Othered, vilified, sent to camps (Boy Scouts in America; Hitler Youth in Germany), released on certain conditions, promised equality, punished for rioting when equality failed to show up, then co-opted, target-marketed, and emancipated again in a kind of compromise that exists only to preempt revolution. Later they were idolized and sacrificed by turns, and now that they speak for themselves—on Tumblr, Twitter, Kik, and also on more traditional online publications, some bossed by teens themselves—they are fetishized perhaps oftener than they’re respected.

Matt Wolf’s new documentary, Teenage (2013), ends at the compromise of 1945, when the New York Times published a “Teen-age Bill of Rights,” although Bradford Cox’s cresting score seems fitter for a revolution. We also get a definition of the subject that explains its astatistical status. Simply: Not everyone belonging to the seven years ending in “teen” is actually a teenager. Some, like the children before or without labor laws, go straight from innocence to adulthood. Some, like me, turn twenty-one (or more) before entering the category of experience, not age, we call youth, while others pass as adults ’til they are. And though none of that is said on the surface of this coruscating doc—a finely animated collage (is there a more teenaged art form?) of archival film and reconstructed “footage” voiced-over by several young actors, including Jena Malone and Ben Wishaw—it’s dead-on obvious that being a teenager means abiding by a set of rules that contradict the wishes of authority. “I don’t trust my parents anymore,” says one. “I just want to be with my friends.” Another aches to “blot out the past,” adding that post–World War I, “there was a reckless sense of release.” After World War II, the sentiment is echoed, louder: “We knew we could be blown up in an instant, so we only wanted to live in the now.” Since forever exists for seconds at a time, less frequently every year, there are repeated pleas to live or stay young for good: “I love being seventeen,” etc. Teenagers, in Wolf’s eyes, want to get older only to the point of being free and equals, without having to become like the rest of us. Adults want to build a bridge between obedience to parents and obedience to the state, or to circumstances. Teenagers want to blow it up.

Wolf worked with researcher Rosemary Rotundi and Teenage author Jon Savage, on whose terms the film is based, to find the four lives, drawn from history, that anchor the chronological plot: Brenda Dean Paul, a proto–Cat Marnell in 1920s England who’d rather die than age (and does); Melita Maschmann, a member of the Hitler Youth who betrays her first-blush idealism by choosing National Socialism over her Jewish friends; Tommie Scheel, a seditionary German swing kid in the same wartime; and Warren Wall, a black Boy Scout turned rebel in the 1943 Harlem riots. No two of the four would sit together at lunch, which is part of why you feel for all of them. Since teenagers defined themselves against adults, adults would eventually counter this by defining teenagers against each other, telling girls and boys and especially girls what kinds of kids not to be, then making movies about the ineluctable cliques and class wars that arose. (What Tina Fey won’t tell you is that slut-shaming was cooked up by moms.) “It wasn’t just us having fun,” says the actor playing Scheel of his hijinks. “It was a direct threat to the nation.”

Teenage is sick for the last years without nostalgia. What the teenager wanted was a future in which we would not be defined by our parents, but by our friends; not by our grades, but by our vagaries; not by what we do, but by what we love. Consider a line from the aforementioned Bill of Rights, by then-teen Elliot E. Cohen: “To the ’teen-ager love is serious.” Nearly seventy years later, youth are commanded to “do what you love,” and when they do it, find that they no longer want it and cannot admit it ’cause they’re lucky. We are becoming a freelance nation under one slogan: “It’s not work when it doesn’t feel like work!” Well, nor does it feel like love when you’re constantly having to prove it.

“American culture spread,” says Melita. “They took away our weapons and gave us Coca-Cola.” Given, after all, that Coke is poison, you might find yourself wishing the kids had kept their guns—and remembered who the enemy was.

Teenage opens Friday, March 14 at the Landmark Sunshine theater in New York, and Friday March 21 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles before a national rollout in the US.