Published on February 17, 2014 | by Dorothy Spencer

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Film review: Teenage

★★★★

Film poster for 'Teenage'

‘Teenage” tracks the emergence of youth and youth culture in the first half of the 20th century. [Soda Pictures]

Based on a book of the same name by punk author Jon Savage, Teenage tracks the emergence of youth and youth culture in the first half of the 20th century.

Rather than a historical documentary, this is a triumph for youth, freedom and the power of teenagers.

Up until child labour was outlawed, kids were kids and then they were adults; beginning work at age 12, long days in dirty factories didn’t leave much time for adolescence.

As traditions changed, and young people found themselves with time and disposable income, a struggle between the generations began to emerge.

Kids began to form what we now know as ‘youth culture’ – a distinct and often opposing force.

Directed by Matt Wolf, much of the film is composed of archive footage, with painstakingly researched reconstructions.

A lot of this footage had never been seen before and it is both surprising and beautiful, featuring insightful home videos of German swing kids – who defied Hitler’s ban on dancing – the bright young things of the ’20s, jitterbugs and victory girls.

Betrayal of the young

Set against the background of two world wars, the Great Depression, race segregation, and the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, the film casts a sharp eye at the betrayal of the young by the old.

Youth clubs such as Scouting For Boys and The Hitler Youth promised kids a community, camaraderie and fun, but ultimately primed a generation for war.

Narrated by four teenage voices – a German girl, a British boy, an American girl and an African American boy – the script is gifted with the searing honesty of the young, as they give voice to emblematic teenagers from the past, using quotes lifted from diary entries.

By showing the respective past experiences of the youth, the repetition of history becomes glaringly obvious.

Just as today, where we are supposedly ruined by porn, social media and drugs, the young ones’ pasts were feared for their dancing, drinking and marijuana use.

Teenage rebellion

The closing scenes paste together modern footage of teenage rebellion – protests over student cuts and the war in Iraq – validating young adults as a potent political force. A force which, I’m afraid, we don’t fully appreciate.

Just as today, where we are supposedly ruined by porn, social media and drugs, the young ones’ pasts were feared for their dancing, drinking and marijuana use.

Just as the kids of the depression were deprived of work, money and self-respect, as children of the recession we are deprived of the freedom that comes from living in a country where cuts aren’t the order of the day. 

As we currently live in an ageing society, outnumbered by the old, it is more important than ever that we continue to re-imagine the future. After all, the young are the lifeblood of society.

Teenage is currently showing at the BFI Southbank

 

 

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