A clip about Brenda Dean Paul from the movie, courtesy of the filmmakers.
At the age you are now, where does your sympathy for the teenage mindset come from?
I’m an optimist, so I have hope for the future—and if you have hope for the future, you have hope in young people. I’m always interested in what comes next. I think that’s very important, because it keeps you ready to adapt to change, and life is constant change.
Humans are not going to evolve by staying the same. This is why, in the film, we celebrate people who were acting for change, and we contrast them with those who weren’t, and we try to understand why they made those decisions.
What current-day teen movements are you most impressed by?
I live in a small town by the sea, so I’m not plugged into big-city life—I don’t see anything! But I have every confidence that young people will come up with solutions to the problems they face.
Setting out into the world is more difficult for kids in this generation than those that came before it. You face crippling student debt, which, by the way, is completely disgusting, and high youth unemployment. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the world. But when you’re young, you have the ability to find solutions to the problems you find yourself in. You’re hardwired to think about things and come up with answers. Adults like me need to listen to teenagers and encourage them to do that.
LAURA: What did you think of Jon’s book when you read it?
MATT WOLF, director: I’ve always been inspired by the political dimensions of youth culture, so I was really excited by it. I felt like he uncovered early 20th-century history through a punk lens, and that that sensibility reflected the material. So I thought, What if I try to make this unconventional historical film that looks at the teenager just as Jon’s book did, but approaches the material in a different sort of way? That’s what jump-started the project.
Where were you a teenager?
I grew up in Santa Fe, California, which is like a suburb of San Francisco, but it wasn’t that alternative. I was a gay teenager, and I’d go to the record store and choose records based on their artwork. Music led me to visual art, and then, from visual art, I started thinking about film and alternative film. So that’s how I got into what I do today—by going to the record store as a teenager.
Did you have friends who were into similar things, or did you feel alienated?
The gay thing was the defining aspect [of my teenage years]. I got involved politically with other gay teenagers. They didn’t go to my high school or live near me, but I had a network. At school, I was really on my own in that regard. I found myself politically as a gay person and defined myself culturally through the music I listened to, and eventually the films I watched led me to merge those two aspects of my adolescent identity, and that’s a huge part of who I am today.
I feel like because I was a radical, gay teenager, I’m interested in outsiders—in hidden histories, rather than official ones. This isn’t a film about boring, ordinary conformist teenagers; it’s a film about radical teenagers and the spirit of defiance. It uncovers the familiar in hidden history, which is relevant to everyday life today.
Which cultural groups in the film are you most fascinated by?
I love the Wandervogel! The notion of youth leading youth and creating a model for young people to express themselves is really beautiful. Young people should be able to create their own worlds and have experiences by themselves.
The German swing thing also really inspired me, because it was the intersection of politics and pop culture. Young people were risking their lives and their safety by importing and partying to music that came from America. It was a bold political statement that adults never would have thought of, and I thought that was profound. To me, what’s most interesting about this material are the parts when young people are inventing new styles that aren’t just cool, but that also introduce new ideas into the mainstream culture.
A lot of the political agitators in the film are teenage girls. What do you think it is about young women that makes them natural agents for change?
Women are oppressed by social restrictions that might implore them to rebel in more meaningful and profound ways [than men]. I felt [Teenage] was a young women’s story. It’s about how much agency they had in changing culture at a time when women were completely oppressed. I want alternative, politically conscious, aesthetically innovative, smart, sassy girls to see this film. It’s for them.
What inspiring youth movements are you seeing happen nowadays?
I definitely see them, but I hesitate to speculate about what the most meaningful threads in youth culture are today—I actually think the people who are concerned with forecasting youth-culture trends are marketing people, who like to use the most innovative strands of youth culture to create the next marketing fad. The organic flow of youth culture is such that young people will do something and we won’t realize how innovative it was until 10 years later, when we’ll become obsessed with it.
Now, culture is more fluid than ever. Alternative teenagers like Taylor Swift, and it doesn’t matter what’s classified as “underground” culture. When I was younger, the distinction between mainstream and alternative culture mattered more. The structure is changing, and I think that’s really interesting. This film is a way to analyze what doesn’t change. ♦
Laura Snapes is the features editor at NME. She loves music by sad old men with beards and TV shows where nothing much happens. You can find her on Twitter at @laurasnapes.