A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Teenage is a documentary that combines historical footage, narrated letters, and dramatized recreations to illustrate that adolescence is a relatively new construct that allows many children to have several extra years without adult responsibilities. The film follows key moments in modern history in which youths made a notable contribution to promoting social change, creating popular culture, resisting tyranny, supporting fascist regimes, or protecting/defending a nation. Given the subject matter, the movie is most appropriate for viewers who are already fully teens (or older) themselves, as there are some heavy themes; infrequent strong language; references to sex, abortion, and drug use; a brief glimpse of naked behinds as teens go skinny dipping; and potentially disturbing historical images (like Nazi propaganda or child labor photos).
What's the story?
TEENAGE isn't a straightforward documentary about the rise of adolescence as a socially accepted rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. It's a high-concept compilation of archival footage, dramatized reenactments, and Ken Burns-esque celebrity narration (of letters and commentary) based on Jon Savage's nonfiction book Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875-1945. The only thing that's missing is expert interviews, which seem to have been omitted in favor of a more artsy, lyrical depiction of the rise of the teenager. Filmmaker Matt Wolf follows the creation of the Boy Scouts, the Bright Young Things in inter-war England, Hitler Youth, the Harlem Renaissance, Swing Kids, and more. Actors like Jena Malone, Alden Ehrenreich, and Ben Whishaw provide voice-over.
Is it any good?
For documentary lovers who appreciate a straightforward approach to historical material, Teenage might be a bit too artsy with its dramatizations and lack of expert commentary. It certainly won't feel like a film that you'd see at a modern art museum. but rather on PBS or HBO. But there's something appealing about the way the focus jumps in time and place, highlighting how youth culture affected or scandalized or changed the dominant society, whether it was the bohemian Bright Young People in 1920s England or the subversive Swing Kids in Nazi Germany who dared to eschew Hitler Youth in favor of attending underground dance and music clubs.
America, which is basically responsible for the rise of teen culture, is featured as well, conflated with racial segregation, discrimination, and the Harlem Renaissance. There's a lot of material to cover, and it might be confusing to teens who are unfamiliar with the subject matter or who can't distinguish the archival footage from the recreated dramatizations. But Teenage should spark fascinating conversations and an interest in history, as well as give current teens the valid (if oversimplified) impression that young people have always raged against their elders, pursed their own pleasures, and felt alienated. Watch it and then encourage deeper research into the parts of the documentary that speak loudest to your own teens.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the historical impact of adolescence and how teen culture has changed from generation to generation. Are you surprised at what hasn't changed (sex, drugs, music, pop culture)?
What are some of the different ways that teens reacted to oppressive governments? Why do you think some teens were eager to follow Hitler, for example, while so few were willing to resist?
The filmmaker uses an artistic approach to the documentary rather than a straightforward one. Do you think the reenactments were confusing, or did they add to your enjoyment of the film?
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