Filmmakers needn’t submerge themselves in so-called “gritty” subject matter to make their work relevant – far from it. The old adage ‘make what you know’ often rings true, and director Jenny Gage and her partner and DoP Tom Betterton spent three years following seven teenage girls to make All This Panic.
Gage has known Ginger and Dusty, the two sisters at the heart of the film, since they were young children in Brooklyn. Watching them walking past her house every morning on their way to school, she began to wonder whether being a teenage girl had changed much since her experience of it. Turning curiosity to camerawork, three years later we’re granted a gentle coming-of-age documentary. (The ironically dramatic title comes from what one of Panic’s protagonist label the “Whatsapp Meltdown” when we witness the girls trying to decide what to wear on their first day back at high school.)
The film’s star is Lena, whose family problems threaten both the brightness of her academic future and her natural strength and optimism. As we follow her from her mid-teens to early college years, things start to unravel: her brother has mental health problems, her parents are unable to provide enough emotional and financial security, and by the latter parts of the film her father is suicidal. When she gets a phone call with yet more bad news, Gage captures the weight of the world descending upon her all-too slender shoulders. She says to her mother, ’I want to help, but I don’t know how.’
Lack of control over your own life is, unsurprisingly in a documentary about teenagers, a central theme. Lena is best friends with Ginger, with whom she has a stormy but close friendship. When Ginger decides not to go to college the rest of her friends, instead of enjoying a liberating new freedom, she finds herself lonely and directionless at home and becomes increasingly angry at everything, but not knowing which way to turn.
Meanwhile Ginger’s more chilled-out younger sister Dusty and her best friend Delia provide an amused running commentary on the older girls’ existential crises. They’re able to view the world with far more humour, but then they’re still at high school, and haven’t faced the decisions and responsibilities that always seem to come too soon.
As the film progresses, three other girls are introduced without much explanation as to their connection with the main players: Sage, a smart and impressively together young woman who lost her father when she was only 16; Olivia who questions her sexuality over the course of the film; and Ivy, a sassy tearaway, confident she can make it on her own. But in truth, while fascinating individuals in their own right, they seem like add-ons, there to flesh out themes of race, feminism and sexuality that the others are unable to fully provide.
Ultimately, the girls essential privilege isn’t what makes All This Panic a little flat, instead determined to be a picturesque sun-drenched snapshot of teenage life, it avoids an exploration of the darker places where we all go sometimes.
A naturalistic, engaging and sometimes funny documentary, it will surely take you back to the mystery of sex, school politics, your childhood crush and annoyingly interfering parents. The problem, perhaps, is that it doesn’t take us anywhere else.
All This Panic is out in UK cinemas from the 24th of March
Words by Anna C Goodall