You Never Know
“I think my ambition in life is to be famous, I’m not quite sure.” She wears pearls and lipstick, her hair is carefully tousled and her suit might be grey. Culled from archival footage that looks to be from the early ‘60s, this anonymous white British teenager seems serious and self-aware, her brow slightly furrowed as she ponders the question of what she might want for her future, what she imagines or expects.
It’s an aptly provocative question to pose at the start of Teenage, a documentary exploring the very idea of teenagers. Certainly, it’s an idea that’s changed over time, affected by shifting politics and social structures, increasing mobility and advancing technologies. And in its first few moments, Matt Wolf’s film indicates exactly this, as the series of archival clips show a range of self-images. A white boy speaks haltingly, self-consciously, affirming his belief that his generation “will have something to say, we’ll make a gigantic splash in the world to come.” He’s followed in the film’s introduction by a black girl who outlines more immediate concerns: “There’s always a change going on,” she says, “You never know what’s gonna happen next, you never know what new clothes you’re gonna have, you never know what the new record’s gonna be, my stack of records keeps getting larger.”
As you might Teenage goes on to show a range of experiences, kids thinking about themselves in relation to parents and friends, cars and classes, work and war. As you watch a circa-late ‘50s girl in a skirt and sweater walk away from the camera, you hear Jena Malone in voiceover: “We’re teenagers, but we didn’t always exist. We were a wartime invention.” One of several voiceover performances in the film—speaking as “American Girl,” “German Girl” (Julia Hummer), and “British Boy” (Ben Wishaw)—Malone here sets up what seems an obvious and also deeply complicated relationship, as she asks, who would decide what teenagers might become, “the adults or us?”
The question shapes the film, which is based on Jon Savage’s book, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture: 1875–1945. In the olden days, you know, before the concept of teenagers existed, children were little adults. As the idea of an in-between time evolves, as teenagers are recognized as not fully formed adults, as immature entities in the process of developing obligations and responsibilities and energies and desires, they also become objects of adults’ needs, whether these have to do with labor or family, lust or war.
That Teenage can’t answer its central question—whether adults or teenagers decide who teenagers are—isn’t surprising but it is provocative. It’s clear enough that teenagers and teenage-ness continue to serve multiple purposes for multiple audiences, at once aging children and young adults, objects of desire and targets of advertisers. Focused on how teenagers are perceived as much as what they might experience, the film structures a series of selective Significant Events, including the two World Wars, the advent of swing and creation of juvenile delinquency, the effects of zoot suits, the Boy Scouts or Frank Sinatra. If the Hitler Youth Groups seem on their face the epitome of conformist adolescence, the film suggests that American popular music offers a conduit for rebellion—even as it becomes as much a product as means for self-expression.
This is the dilemma for Teenage. For in essaying an historical assessment, in identifying trends and defining moments, the film must overlook the essential notion it might otherwise embrace, the broadly indefinable range of specific and individual experiences, the ways that teenagers like to think of themselves as different—from previous generations and each other—the impulses to break away. So, while it’s familiar to hear concerns about keeping up (“If a girl doesn’t dress right, the way everyone else is dressing, she’s left out”), it’s also predictable that teens see themselves as fundamentally other (“We wanted to tell those dumb bastards we were different, that was all”).
If it’s distressing that young people go to war at the behest of elders, and/or confront prejudice based on race, class, and gender (“In Europe, they were treating us like equals, but back home, it was a different story,” says a Negro soldier following WWII, “We were the enemy”), it may be heartening to know that some kids understand the value of being kids (“I love being 17, I wish I could stay this age for a while,” says one, “It’s the perfect spot between adolescence, which means you’re going somewhere and adulthood which means you’re on the downgrade”).
These opposing experiences and perspectives coexist, of course, with desires to fit in, to find communities and visible identities, to share music and art and makeup, to understand history as progressive, to see movement and hope. The movie doesn’t so much deliver to all these expectations as it reveals their insistent, necessary contractions. It’s impossible to be a teenager and yet, everyone is, now, for however brief or extended a time, fulfilling so many demands and failing to meet so many other. The film shows all this by assembling remarkable archival footage, actors’ readings from teenagers’ diaries, and some beautifully mounted reenactments. These last underline the blurred lines between fictions and truths that structure the idea of the teenager. As fascinating as these many stories may be, they’re not quite so coherent as this film—or any single text—might suggest.