I didn't do much as a teenager. I watched a lot of television. I played guitar in a garage band, and we once won a trophy at a high school battle of the bands. I liked horror movies and professional wrestling, and I thought Jack Nicholson was very cool. I vaguely remember acting in a class play, and taking a trip to the New England Aquarium. I had crushes on my friends' sisters. I was the last kid in my circle to get a job. I never wanted to work, and I still don't.
Mostly, I wanted to get the teenage years over with so I could become an adult of some kind. While watching Matt Wolf's Teenage, an occasionally amusing documentary about the history of teens, I felt like I'd missed out on something. Apparently, as we're told in the documentary, I was supposed to spend those years fighting the establishment, or creating a dance craze, or battling my elders for the right to express myself. I didn't do any of that. Watching Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS was good enough for me.
From what I gathered from watching Teenage, we released children from unwholesome labor practices about 100 years ago, and ever since then we've been trying to put them back to work, usually in quasi-military organizations like the Boy Scouts or the Hitler youth. Nothing really worked, though. Once we took the brats out of the factories, there was no way to corral them. They fought. They stole. They danced. They were like hyper aggressive puppies who wouldn't obey. They seemed to like music, for many of the old clips in the movie reveal kids from every generation talking about their record collection. Other than that, they complained a lot. No matter the decade, teens have whined about their lot in life. Teachers and parents keep them down. No one understands them. Teens sounded just as petulant than as now.
The ideas expressed in Teenage aren't bad ones, but Wolf tries too hard to be poetic. He has access to some very interesting footage, including some of a very young man who has returned from WW1 a twitchy, shell-shocked mess. But he and screenwriter Jon Savage appear to have decided early on that their movie was going to be unlike most documentaries of this type, and would focus on teens from around the world, and not just America. It also avoids the usual stuff about marketing ploys and how teens are really just dupes for whatever the big corporations want to sell to them. Instead, we're told that teens created the society we're living in, or something like that. As I look around on a daily basis, that's nothing to brag about.
The movie works best when it reveals things that have been lost to history, particularly in the lives of British teens of the 1920s and '30s. I wish some of those scenes could have been lengthened, but Wolf seems leery of staying on a topic or idea for too long. Maybe he thinks the movie will be viewed only by teens, who have notoriously short attention spans.
The movie is also marred by an ambient electronic musical score that turns every scene into a slow motion dirge. The music occasionally works - I liked how the scenes of jitterbug kids seemed to play perfectly against this modern score - but ultimately the music starts to wear on one's nerves. The movie is only 77 minutes long, but just as I wanted my teen years to pass quickly, I also couldn't wait for this movie to end.