While the adolescent experience has been documented countless times on screen and in fiction, the origin and history of these adventures is explored less often. Documentary filmmaker and NYU alumnus Matt Wolf details the birth of youth culture in his latest project, “Teenage.” Presenting a personal and commemorative homage to all young adults, the film succeeds in celebrating the transformation and nostalgia of growing up.
“Teenage” presents a comprehensive narrative of adolescence from its inception at the turn of the 20th century to the dawn of rebellion in the early 1950s. Wolf looked to punk author Jon Savage’s nonfiction book, “Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture,” as inspiration for the film.
Wolf spoke with WSN about his process in creating this film.
“I was a big fan of Jon’s work before I even thought about a movie like this,” Wolf said. “What I liked about [the book] was that it painted an excellent picture of a different time and place, and even more importantly, of the culture of that time. I appreciate hidden histories, and to me the emergence of adolescence was one of those periods in time that wasn’t really well integrated into our minds.”
Wolf said the themes in Savage’s book are universally related to adolescence. “Teenage” addresses multicultural perspectives on adolescence in varying times and predicaments. The film is comprised of stunning archival material that pairs excellently with journal-like voiceovers that recount a more individual perspective of the times. Actors Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw, among others, provide guiding and insightful narration.
The film could have easily been a study on the contemporary teenager, but Wolf said adolescents impose a profound effect that is impossible to register immediately following their actions.
“Each generation has altered the way we view the world,” said Wolf. “When I was involved in activism when I was a teenager, I didn’t realize the effect it would have later. I was too emotionally invested in it to really reflect on how I was affecting the future.”
Wolf said the tales of beatniks and rockers of the later 20th century, as pivotal as they were to current popular culture, have earned widespread recognition whereas material from an earlier era — enough for dozens more films, he said — is richer with certainty and emotion. The director’s focus ultimately creates context and allows the audience to consider the obscure realm of adolescence.
Though the film is a directorial achievement on its own, another notable aspect of Wolf’s project is his choice of music. An intoxicating original soundtrack by Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox establishes the setting of the film through recognizable beats and also blurs the line between past and present, establishing a poignant and lasting connection with the viewer.
In a way, Wolf’s entire film accomplishes this connection, embracing the timeless allure of adolescence and broadcasting its triumphs.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, March 12 print edition. Nora Blake is a staff writer. Email her at [email protected]