Hollywood has tried to capture the experience of the teenage girl, as if it’s some dark mystery or the Rosetta Stone. Thirteen or The Virgin Suicides tap into the confusion and bouncy excitement of being a girl on the verge of womanhood, but few capture the feelings as acutely as director Jenny Gage does in All This Panic. Filmed in a way that automatically draws comparisons to Boyhood – and how ironic that is – All This Panic’s flaws can be shoved to the side so long as you connect with the emotions of its all-female cast.
Filmed over a three-year period, Gage’s camera follows six teenage girls as they transition from high school into the world at large. All with different histories and backgrounds, the girls navigate the waters of familial issues, relationships and finding their own identities.
Gage’s documentary starts, appropriately enough, with her teenage subjects discussing a return to school. They question what they’re going to wear and have parties where drinking is involved all in the hopes that “all this panic” is worth it. As each of the subject’s lives change their panic only intensifies, seguing from what they’re going to wear to school to wondering where they’re going to live or struggling to find work. Their stories are both simple and expansive that it’s almost disconcerting how Gage falls back on quantity, and not quality, with her subjects.
Everyone is interesting in their own way, but there are a few of Gage’s girls whose lives are far more interesting than others. She tries to balance out each woman’s story, but it is really the lives of three that are given any semblance of personality or depth. The most compelling is Lena, a teen outcast who shoulders the responsibility of a father and brother battling with mental illness, whose parents are constantly being evicted and moving from place to place. It’s a testament to Lena’s strength that she’s able to focus on school – she attends Sarah Lawrence – and comes out as well-adjusted as she is. She’s the closet thing All This Panic has to a protagonist and she’s so magnetic that the entire documentary could be about her.
Sisters Dusty and Ginger also standout. Ginger was Lena’s best friend in high school, and their relationship is one of tempestuous opposites. Lena rationalizes calling Ginger’s parents when she’s drunk, causing Ginger to jump in to passive-aggressively berate her bestie. As Ginger struggles to find a place in life after refusing to go to college, her and Lena drift apart. One of the girl’s asks if they’re just going to be “high school friends;” the implication being they’ll always have their high school connection, but that time has deadened any deeper connection they once had.
As a woman seguing from her twenties into her thirties, All This Panic keys into my own continued insecurities and questions about life. Regardless of age, no one ever really knows what it means to be an adult. As each girl leaves high school with high hopes, only to realize college and the real world draws you away from the security of the world you knew, it’s presented with all manner of frightening uncertainty.
At several points Lena or Ginger mention how much they love New York, and that enhances the dreamy quality of the narrative. These women are not just growing up, they’re growing in one of the fastest cities in the world. Sage, one of the subjects, states that being a teenager is a time of rapid objectification and sexualization, and that comes through in how each of the girls’ clothing changes. The skimpy outfits mark either an increased confidence or a childlike immaturity, transforming into outfits that ultimately represent their personality.
It’s unfortunate that time is lacking in the other stories because the remaining girls all seem interesting on the surface. Olivia is a young lesbian struggling to find a way to assert her sexuality to parents she assumes won’t care; Sage is a black girl coping with her father’s death; Delia and Ivy are the most underdeveloped and serve no purpose overall but probably have interesting lives.
The lack of depth is ultimately the result of bad editing. The girls are left to explain their current situations, but Gage and crew never prod them to contextualize. When Lena talks about her family, there’s confusion about the oblique way she explains things that additional follow-up queries would confirm. There’s also no way to mark the passage of time short of the girls’ changing hairstyles and mentions of graduating and attending classes. A simple year in the corner would help. Gage also enjoys out-of-focus shots. Often this happens when parents are talking, setting up the concept that as teens it’s hard to identify or see a parent’s point of view. However, the technique isn’t used with enough frequency to come off like little more than sloppy camerawork. It’s frustrating that, as good as the message is, the filmmaking isn’t as confident as the subject matter.
In the film’s final moments Lena summarizes a trip to the Met as a teenager, and how the objects on display were once everyday items. The everyday eventually becomes history and you can’t ever return those items to their original state. Like those art objects, All This Panic presents its subjects as art pieces. Watching each woman as the baby-faced little girl transition into the clear-eyed women who knew (or were still figuring out) what they want, is relateable regardless of gender.
All This Panic is a movie that captures the spirit of being a young woman on the verge. I could only imagine what I’d say or look like if my life was documented at 16 or 17. Each age in life has its own rewards, but as Ginger says, aging is a terrifying prospect no matter what. All This Panic is a frustratingly made film, but it’s a vital documentary for young people and those searching for something that will remind them of that feeling when everything was ahead of them; when you could drink or lie to your parents. When the end of the world was just dealing with “all this panic” about what you were going to wear on the first day of school.