Just like Santa Claus's red suit, the teenager is a 20th-Century marketing invention. Or is it? English writer, broadcaster and music journalist Jon Savage – who wrote England's Dreaming, the definitive text on the Sex Pistols and punk – certainly doesn't think so, and wrote a book about it, called Teenage.

This same-titled documentary was inspired by Savage's tome, and deftly destroys the notion that youth culture began with the arrival of rock 'n' roll as post-WWII consumerism took a Jesuitical approach to young people and began cynically exploiting their malleable minds.

Teenage is a stylish example of mosaic documentary-making and director Matt Wolf uses the tools at his disposal – rare archive footage, excerpts from teen diaries, music and voiceovers – to create a compelling audiovisual experience on a par with the best documentaries as he lets those involved tell the story.

The voices belong to Jena Malone (from The Hunger Games), Ben Whishaw (Skyfall), German actress Julia Hummer and American actor Jessie Usher, and all are utterly convincing. Teenage traces a path that begins with changes in child labour at the dawn of the 20th Century, and covers a wide range of topics, from the birth of the Boy Scout movement, adolescent soldiers of the Great War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, Hitler Youth, Bobby Soxers, the Pearl Harbor attack, right up to the time teenagers were 'invented' and beyond.

The real beauty of this film is that it doesn't try to proselytise: it observes without comment, and the result isn't just a history lesson but an evocative reminder of how thrilling it is to be young. It brought to mind the Pet Shop Boys' fantastic (and equally evocative) 1990 single, Being Boring, particularly the line: "When you're young you find inspiration in anyone who's ever gone and opened up a closing door."

Teenage is driven by the exuberance of youth and the intoxicating desire to find your place, your own unique voice in the world. It made me yearn for the days when I was on the cusp of adulthood and eagerly embracing this great adventure called life.

This isn't just a film; it's poetry.

John Byrne

Teenage is released at the IFI in Dublin and selected cinemas on January 24 2014.