BY GARY M. KRAMER | “All This Panic” artfully documents a handful of teenage girls in New York on the cusp of adulthood. Shot over a three-year period, the film is a mix of observational footage along with interviews and intimate moments of the subjects with their friends and families.
Each personality is distinctive. Lena is a bright and gangly adolescent with braces and a curfew when she is first introduced. Her parents are divorced, and conflicts in the family come to light over the course of the film. While Lena feels weighted down by the family drama, she puts pressure on herself to find a boyfriend.
Lena’s best friend is Ginger, a wild young girl who doesn’t want to grow up. She chooses not to go to college after high school seemingly because she lacks direction. Ginger talks about having floated from person to person in high school rather than making close friends, and that makes clear the difficulties she has with commitments. Her sister Dusty, by contrast, is far more responsible and likable.
Over three years, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Gage follows girls on the cusp of being adults
There is plenty in the film that shows how teenage girls can be self-centered, even annoying, but “All This Panic” emphasizes the confusion and awkwardness of growing up. It also demonstrates how attitudes formed at a young age can shape lives.
One of the film’s best subjects is Sage, a middle-class African-American feminist who embraces her strengths and what makes her different. She offers the film’s shrewdest observation when discussing how teenage girls are often objectified sexually while their thoughts are discounted.
“People see you, but they don’t hear what you say,” Sage says, with righteous outrage.
Director Jenny Gage, obviously cares about what teenage girls think and feel — and she wants viewers to, as well.
Another of the film’s strong subjects is Olivia, a teenager beginning to acknowledge her attraction to women. The way that her sexual identity is weighing on her mind is palpable. Olivia is afraid to come out to her parents because she has not figured out how to be comfortable with herself. That’s a mature reaction, and offers her –– and viewers –– hope that she will be okay when she does decide to talk to her parents.
Later in the film, another young woman admits to falling in love with a girl she likes and explains how she conspired to nudge their friendship into more.
Gage clearly has affection for all of the young women she follows in “All This Panic.” Each of them reveals something about herself in discussing if they have ever been in love, and it’s touching when Lena recounts the heartbreak she felt when a boy she had a crush on did not reciprocate her feelings.
Sex is a big deal for these teens, and there are candid discussions about losing one’s virginity and or pregnancy scares. When Ginger needles her Dusty about how far she has gone with a boy, her sister is cagey. The scene, filmed on a rooftop, demonstrates Gage success in eliciting authentic reactions from her subjects. They obviously feel comfortable expressing their discomfort in front of Gage’s camera. An earlier scene of the sisters fighting illustrates both how close they and how different.
“All This Panic,” while addressing teenage drinking and drug use, it never judges the girls. Their parents seem to accept that their kids will party, and Sage’s mother is angrier that her daughter lied about a pot pipe than that her daughter may have used it.
The film emphasizes the girls’ character; they are figuring themselves out and viewers share the highs and lows of that their scary journeys. As these teens find a sense of self-worth and security, they come into their own.
“You don’t realize how tough it is until you’re out of it,” one young woman observes about high school toward the end of the film. That also rings true about adolescence itself. Watching Lena blossom from gawky teen to a responsible young adult is gratifying to watch..
Gage details their coming of age by showing how the girls express themselves by dying their hair (sometimes badly) and, in more serious ways for some of them, by cutting themselves and struggling with depression. If “All This Panic” does not get too deep into any of the topical issues it raises, perhaps that’s because a sharper focus would upset the delicate balance Gage creates. The film is far more of a slice of teenage life than it is a hard-hitting exposé of youth culture and issues. “All This Panic” may not be especially profound, but it certainly is poignant.
ALL THIS PANIC | Directed by Jenny Gage | Factory 25 | Opens Mar. 31 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com