'Teenage' is not recommended for teenagers

Matt Pais 'Teenage' REVIEW

'Teenage'

'Teenage' (April 21, 2014)

*1/2 (out of four)

With narration by Jena Malone ("The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"), original music from Deerhunter's Bradford Cox and an executive producer credit for Jason Schwartzman, "Teenage" seemingly has the youth-oriented savvy that's mandatory for a documentary about the teenage experience.

Actually, this forehead-smacker appears to exist primarily as a way for lazy social studies teachers to press play and take two days off. Co-written by Jon Savage as an adaptation of his book "Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945," the film instead begins in 1904 and spends 75 grueling minutes on hollow accounts of random teens throughout the next 40-ish years. The concept of the teenager is depicted as "a wartime invention," and the film jumps from one brief anecdote to the next (Swing jamborees! Hitler youth!) with minimal interest in its characters' past or future.

But that's the epitome of being a teenager, some might say -- focusing on the now. In that case, "Teenage" shouldn't imply a conscious trajectory of change from generation to generation. It also shouldn't, during an extremely limited segment on the black experience in America, highlight one African-American teen's upbeat note about black music going where its people can't -- as if there's nothing upsetting about that situation. The movie also seems to think teenagers only exist in the U.S., England and Germany.

The one useful takeaway is the way the emotional and physical developments of the teenage years are universal even as their roles change from post-Industrial Revolution laborers to a commodity to be controlled, from military servicemen and women to consumer tastemakers. Yet in addition to the omission of bullying and romance, it's outrageous to call a movie "Teenage" and almost completely ignore what that term has meant in the past 60 years. That means developing political roles, increases in violent activity and the massive changes ushered in by the Internet and social media. Among others.

The doc has less insight and perspective than an average episode of "Boy Meets World," and a stereotypical response to "Teenage" from today's attention span-deprived youth would be, "Ugh, whatever." They'd be right.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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