Director: Jenny Gage
Cast: Lena M, Dusty Rose Ryan, Delia Cunningham, Ginger Leigh Ryan, Olivia Cucinotta
Watch All This Panic online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
This beautifully made documentary was shot over a period of three years, after New York-based photographer-turned-director Jenny Gage and her partner, cinematographer Tom Betterton, got to know two of their neighbours’ teenage daughters in Brooklyn, swiftly followed by five more girls in their social circle. The result is a moving and fascinating portrait that perfectly captures the joys and agonies of growing up.
Fiercely bright, slightly nerdy and occasionally precocious Lena has the most screen-time and swiftly emerges as the emotional centre of the film. When we first meet her, aged 16, she has tomboy-ish short hair and experiences a devastating rejection from a high school crush (you get a strong sense that she thought the presence of the film crew would swing things in her favour). In later years, her hair now much longer, she earns a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence, but struggles with her increasingly dysfunctional home life, after her parents get divorced and experience their own problems.
Lena’s best friend is Ginger (the girl first befriended by Gage and Betterton), who decides early on that she doesn’t want to go to college and wants to pursue a career as an actress. However, she clearly lacks the ambition (her kindly-but-direct British father lambasts her laziness in no uncertain terms), and begins to drift apart from her friends, as they all head off to university.
Other characters include: rebellious, socially conscious Sage, the only African-American at her prestigious Manhattan private school, who constantly argues with her recently widowed mother; shy surfer Olivia, who begins to question her sexuality, but gains more confidence once she enters college; street-smart Ivy, who plans to move in with her boyfriend to escape an unstable home life; and Ginger’s younger sister Dusty, who observes and comments on her sibling’s life, together with her best friend, Delia.
Gage’s fly-on-the-wall access to the lives of her subjects is nothing short of extraordinary, so much so that you occasionally wonder whether parts of the film may have been staged – at the very least, it’s hard to believe that Ginger wasn’t tempted to strop off camera during an excruciating and tearful argument with her parents.
Betterton’s intimate cinematography is simply stunning throughout, lending the subjects and their surroundings a lyrical quality that is deeply affecting, particularly during a sequence in which Lena and Ginger reconnect over a day at the beach. Similarly, the relaxed atmosphere created by Gage elicits some astute observations from her subjects, particularly Sage, who wryly notes an uncomfortable reality about teenage sexuality: “People want to see you but they don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
One intriguing aspect of All This Panic is its parallels with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, partly because we watch the characters physically mature over the course of three years (Lena’s transition from gawky, awkward teen to confident young woman is especially heartening), but also because the film strongly illustrates the idea that, when you’re young, there are a multitude of choices available to you regarding your future, but, paradoxically, the moment you make one of those choices, all the other doors close and your path into your future narrows. To that end, it’s genuinely fascinating to observe the different directions the girls’ lives take, given that they all start from roughly the same place.
This is a captivating and strikingly photographed documentary that offers both hope and heartbreak, while marking out Gage as a genuine talent to watch. Here’s hoping she revisits her subjects in another few years.