Part documentary and part film essay, this movie mixes fact and fiction to explore the concept of the teenager, which didn't exist before World War II. It's fascinating to learn how the idea emerged, and how understanding it has fundamentally changed society. But the film remains resolutely superficial in its approach to history, only briefly dipping beneath the surface right at the very end.
Up until the early 20th century, Western society was made up of adults and children, with nothing in between. But child labour laws changed that, giving young people a taste of freedom and responsibility that became even more important during two world wars and the Great Depression. Rebellious attitudes surged in swing music, and even though adults balked at the idea of giving teens any real independence, the New York Times made it official in 1945 with the publication of a Teen-age Bill of Rights.
All of this is informative and interesting, but filmmaker Wolf interweaves the archival movies with footage he has created in a vintage style. And we can tell something isn't quite right: the character profiles are clearly fictionalised, which makes us wonder how much of the movie we can believe. It certainly doesn't help that these fake young people are token figures: a partying British socialite, a young black American, a member of the Hitler Youth. No matter how much they tell us about the times and places, they remain purely artificial creations.
The film's narration also feels oddly invented. Spoken in the voices of various teens, it catches our attention because it reflects aspects of life we can identify with, with variations of the youth experience over the years. But nothing here is remotely revelatory: throughout human history, adolescents have felt out of place, yearning for purpose in life and a sense of their own importance in the world. Oddly, Wolf never finds anything that suggests that "teenage" is a new concept at all. And his only intriguing discovery, that post-war teens started a rebellion that ran through the 1960s to Tienanmen Square, is only barely touched on even though it's the first original idea in the whole movie.
Run time: 78 mins
In Theaters: Monday 1st April 2013
Box Office USA: $19.5k
Distributed by: Oscilloscope Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Fresh: 45 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Matt Wolf
Producer: Ben Howe, Kyle Martin
Screenwriter: Matt Wolf, Jon Savage
Also starring: Alden Ehrenreich