A dreamy nostalgia drenched dive into the lives of teenage girls, All This Panic manages to catch those fleeting, hard to hold moments of youth.
For three years, Director Jenny Gage and her husband and cinematographer Tom Betterton followed the lives of their teenage neighbours, sisters Dusty and Ginger and their circle of young friends. But instead of documenting the girls’ every move, Gage drops in on them every once in awhile, sometimes in the run up to an event like a big party or the day of a TV advert audition. Like in real life, sometimes it feels like nothing is really happening, but then you realise that a year has passed in the girls’ lives since we last saw them. The friendships wax and wane, and the girls flit in and out of each other’s lives while we watch them furtively from the edges.
Gage and Betterton’s background in photography is put to good use throughout the film, shrouding the girls is gauzy, warm light, often framing the girls on piers or rooftops at sunset. Gage favours tight shots of faces that are almost too close, as if trying peer into the girls’ minds to find out the difference between what they say and what they mean. Such a focus on aesthetic could have been shallow in lesser hands but Gage and Betterton’s commitment to the film’s beauty shows a more haptic style of filmmaking. They aren’t trying to make a big point or teach you something new, but rather to make you feel the way these girls do, or perhaps how you once felt yourself, suspended in a sometimes glorious and sometimes terrible limbo between childhood and adulthood.
But not many teenage girls have talented filmmakers living next door who think it would really interesting to immortalise three years of their youth. This film wants you to recognise that female teenagedom is special, but the subjects of this film would have always have been special no matter what. A selling point in the marketing of this film is that despite the girls’ cool Brooklyn demeanors, they’re still teenagers trying to work it all out, but I can’t help but think about what this film with all its aesthetic beauty would have meant bestowed on less privileged kids- there’s a slight undercurrent of elitism in All This Panic that feels like a wasted opportunity. If the film is about understanding a group that are often willfully misunderstood, then why stop at the privileged amongst that group? The only African American in the film is a smart young feminist called Sage, but she’s hardly in it, and it seems Gage maybe only filmed her two or three times over a much shorter period of times than the other girls as if she was an afterthought.
That’s not to suggest that Gage and Batterton can’t make the film they want, it’s not her responsibility the next ‘right on’ documentary. But Gage and Betterton present these girls as quintessential American teenagers (we even see one drinking slow mo from a glass Coca-Cola bottle ffs) and it undermines the film’s mission of relatability and connection between subject and viewer. It sometimes feels like it’s saying, ‘hey, cool rich Brooklyn kids have feelings too!’, almost as if Gage and Betterton can’t choose between documenting the girls, or revering them.
All This Panic is a celebration of youthful female innocence and a call to let girls grow into the women they will one day be without judgement or interference. And while its focus on dreamy aesthetics may initially lull you back into the exuberant world of teenagers, its glossy perfectness might ring false and pull you back to reality.