Filmmakers needn’t submerge themselves in so-called “gritty” subject matter to make their work relevant – far from it. You must make what you know. And director Jenny Gage and her partner and DoP Tom Betterton certainly got to know the seven teenage girls they followed for three years to make All This Panic. (The title is ironically dramatic: what one protagonist labels the Whatsapp meltdown we witness as the girls try and decide what to wear on their first day back at high school.)
Gage has known Ginger and Dusty, the two sisters at the heart of the film, since they were small kids. She would watch them walking past her house in Brooklyn every morning on the way to school, and got to wondering whether being a teenage girl had changed much since she experienced it. She began to follow them with her camera, and three years later wrapped this gentle coming-of-age documentary.
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, you can see the weight of the world descending upon her all-too slender shoulders. As 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 like everyone else, instead of enjoying a liberating new freedom, she finds herself lonely and directionless at home, getting more and more angry at everything, but not knowing which way to turn.
Meanwhile Ginger’s more chilled-out younger sister Dusty and best mate 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, not facing 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, whilst fascinating individuals in themselves, they seem like add-ons, there to flesh out themes of race, feminism and sexuality that the others are unable to fully provide.
And it’s not because these girls are essentially privileged that things ultimately seem a little flat. It’s more that the film is determined to be a picturesque sun-drenched snapshot of teenage life, rather than an exploration of the darker places where we all go sometimes.
All This Panic is naturalistic, engaging and sometimes funny, and will be sure to take you back to those times when it was all about the latest crush, the mystery of sex, school politics and the annoyingness of parents. The problem, perhaps, is that it doesn’t take us anywhere else.