Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"With impressively sourced archive footage, much of it in colour, the film presents a fair overview of its subject and finds time for laughs even in stories with tragic endings." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

A history of the teenager in the Western world with almost no sign of James Dean (who was, after all, 24 when he played cinema's most famous one), this engaging documentary presents as complex picture of youth that doesn't tiptoe around difficult issues and shows the same desire to improve the world attracting young people to swing music and to the Hitler youth.

It beings on the cusp of the 20th century with the development of child labour laws that suddenly create a new stage of existence between childhood and adulthood, and carries us through the years with narrators speaking the pasts of eternal teenagers themselves. By speaking on behalf of one generation after another, they remind us of the universality of the teenage experience, right up to a charming (albeit rather abrupt) final shot in which an old woman smiles at a group of brash young things as they pass her, clearly relating to the way they feel.

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With impressively sourced archive footage, much of it in colour, the film presents a fair overview of its subject and finds time for laughs even in stories with tragic endings. There's room for pranks and hijinks and exuberant dancing but the main focus of the emerging narrative is on activism, however it's expressed - from bright young things in the 1920s challenging gender roles and creating art to the famous image of a young man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. If there is criticism to be made of this approach, it's that it does bias the film toward middle class stories, and as the years go by we see fewer and fewer images of the poverty that remains a part of many young people's lives even today. In and of themselves, however, the stories are very effectively told.

Unlike previous musings on this theme, which have tended to distance their subjects from the rest of the world, Teenage looks at them very much in the context of what is going on around them, exploring their influence and also their vulnerability, as they are subjected to crude propaganda, encouraged to enlist in wars that will see many of them slaughtered, and repeatedly monstered by the press. Given the latter, there's surprisingly little railing against The Man.

The picture may be distorted by removing teenage whining, but given the biased way many older people tend to perceive this to begin with, it's arguably fair. It also makes the film much more enjoyable. This isn't a film getting angry on young people's behalf; it's a celebration of their spirit and energy, which endures in the community off the young even as individuals age. It reminds us what teenagers have to teach to others and makes a good case for cheering rather than belittling the boldness which - though it may sometimes by naive - constitutes a significant driving force in history.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2014
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Teenage packshot
A social history of the teenager.
Amazon link

Director: Matt Wolf

Writer: Jon Savage, Matt Wolf

Starring: Narrated by actors Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer and Jesse Usher

Year: 2013

Runtime: 78 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Germany

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