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Tribeca Film Festival 2013 Review

Cinereach; 75 minutes

Director: Matt Wolf

Written by on April 29, 2013 

Matt Wolf’s Teenage is an awfully bland telling of an interesting story. Combining media, including archival materials with some newly shot footage, it traces the development of the adolescent. Early on it claims that “adolescence is the new birth,” a post-war, post-Industrial Revolution phenomenon with the improvement of child labor laws.

Based on the book by John Savage, part of the problem is the narration. Found footage documentary is a powerful genre, with admirable essay films employing the technique, notably by two British masters. Julian Temple‘s London: The Modern Babylon was a rare overlooked gem from the Toronto International Film Festival last year and Terence Davies has also used this technique to unpack truths about his life, sexuality, and location.

Here, the narration is passionless and anthropological. Truth be told, part of the reason to tell the story this way is to bring the anthropological intent of the text to life with images and sound. If narrator Jena Malone were telling me a bedtime story, I’d be asleep within a few sentences (although she has screen presence, she has been directed to read this material without the passion it requires).

The voiceovers, I suspect closely adapted from Savage’s text, tell us important facts, in some ways functioning too on the nose instead of mixing narrators from across generations and periods of time (like Temple does in the aforementioned example). Wolf claimed during the screening that he finished the film a week ago and I hope he has more time. Four token narrators (Malone as the “White American”, Ben Whitshaw as the “Brit”, Julia Hammer as the “German” and Jessie Usher as the “African American”) aren’t nearly enough to take on such a diverse, challenging and wide topic as the development of the teenage experience.

Narrowly focused on the origins of “teenagers,” the perspective shifts from the American flapper, the “Bright Young People” in the UK and the Hitler Youth in Germany to the development of rock ‘n’ roll. Much of the found footage is impressive, including some stunning color film of the World Fair that popped out amongst the cold, passionless anthropological voice over. Sound recordings surely did exist and Wolf chooses a newly composed score that creates very little contrast until the film’s vibrant conclusion.

Teenage is an interesting experience: an essay film that contains half the life it should have. It rarely clicks and the energy is often wrong. It does establish throughout its narration that teenhood is a lonely, liminal state, or as Britney Spears puts it, “I’m not a girl, not yet a women. All I need as time.”

Teenage is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival and will also screen at Hot Docs.


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