The Best Teen Movie of the Year So Far is a Documentary

By  · Published on March 18th, 2014

Oscilloscope Laboratories

This week sees the release of an extraordinary new teen movie, adapted from a book, involving social rebellion. I’m not talking about Divergent. And to be fair the film already opened last Friday but expands to Los Angeles this weekend followed by Austin, Atlanta, Boston and other major cities over the next two months. It’s titled Teenage, and it’s a documentary, and while it’s heavy on the archival footage, it’s very accessible, cleverly constructed and even quite entertaining. It’s produced by Jason Schwartzman, features character narration by Jena Malone and Ben Whishaw and features Alden Ehrenreich. And like any good teen movie should, it has a memorable soundtrack – albeit one totally in the form of an anachronistic electronic store by Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox.

Although there were qualifiable entries here and there beforehand, the teen movie really was born in the 1950s, which is also around the time when we think of teen culture first beginning to emerge. The second part isn’t necessarily the case, though, even if it’s when the term “teenager” and the acknowledgement of adolescents’ pop culture finally caught on in the mainstream. Taking its basis from Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture 1875–1945, the documentary takes us back much further in time to the last quarter of the 19th century. Think of it as the prequel or back story to every teen movie of the last 60 years. Except maybe Swing Kids, which deals with a social group also included in Teenage.

Other subcultures from that period you might not know include Jitterbugs, Bright Young Things, Victory Girls, Wandering Birds and Sub-Debs. As director Matt Wolf guides us through the different eras, we meet each group as we might only briefly be introduced to individual high school cliques in the teen movies of the past half century. Interestingly, little has changed in recent decades as far as what those groups are (jocks, nerds, punks, etc.) whereas you’re unlikely to see flappers or Hitler Youth or those jazz loving Nazi defying Swingjugend in any school or movie of the present (take note, whoever next makes a teen movie spoof). Looking at youths primarily of America, England and Germany, the movie is going to do even better than Back to the Future to make you realize how hip your elders were as teens.

Teenage is distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories, which is very fitting. I initially watched the doc right after seeing the label’s own 12 O’Clock Boys, another new documentary about rebellious youths, that one focused on a dirt bike culture specific to Baltimore and following a teen boy with dreams of joining. Before that, there was the Oscilloscope release Only the Young, which I’d constantly praised as the “most genuinely honest and heartfelt teen movie” since the John Hughes period. Group in These Birds Walk and Tchoupitoulas and it appears that Oscilloscope has a plan to be the most prominent outlet for teen and coming-of-age movies while providing evidence that its docs that are at the forefront of the genre today – never mind the competition from occasional great narratives such as The Spectacular Now.

Before the release of Teenage, another documentary held the status of best teen movie of the year so far, but it wasn’t an Oscilloscope title. That would be Maidentrip, which follows the individualist spirit of a 16-year-old girl sailing around the world by herself. As far as a single story movie goes, it’s still the champ, especially given how much of her adventure metaphorically parallels with her trip from childhood to adulthood. But as a historical piece, Teenage is an umbrella under which most other teen movies fall.

One doc, though, might not live beneath that umbrella. I missed it during the fest, but at SXSW there was a film titled Beyond Clueless, a Kickstarted British production claiming that the decade of 1995 to 2004 was the best ever for the teen movie genre. I can’t even imagine that being proven. But I look forward to the doc of the future that spotlights the early 2010s as truly the best time for teen movies, nonfiction or otherwise.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.