'All This Panic': Film Review

Courtesy of Tom Betterton
Uneven but undeniably cinematic.

Brooklyn-based art and fashion photographers Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton turned to local teenage girls as the subject of their first feature documentary.

Filmed over a period of three years and several times as many hairstyle changes, All This Panic distills moments from the adolescence of seven Brooklyn girls, with intimacy and affection. Director Jenny Gage and her husband, cinematographer Tom Betterton, were neighbors of two of the girls when they began the film, and at its strongest, the access they were granted pays off in well-observed sequences, from the confessional to the theatrical. The result is a composite portrait of girlhood, refracted — not especially rich in groundbreaking insight, but often shimmering with feeling.

The filmmakers’ kaleidoscopic view of youth is by turns dreamy and hyperarticulate, alternating vérité footage with interviews and more set-up scenes that suggest performance (it’s no surprise when there’s mention of LaGuardia, a high school for the arts). Condensing many months’ worth of material into an uneven but often captivating mix, Gage, Betterton and editor Connor Kalista capture the world-changing difference between one grade of high school and the next, as well as the identity-forming importance of cliques and parties.

At the core of the slender film are two friendships. The resilient Lena and the privileged but embattled Ginger (the girls are identified onscreen by first name only) weather ups and downs, together and separately, while Ginger’s younger sister Dusty and the sharp-eyed Delia provide a sort of running commentary on anticipated experiences of sex and love and who will be the first to have a boyfriend. The film’s title is Delia’s assessment of some friends’ intense fashion anxiety over what to wear on the first day of junior year — the kind of thing that kids usually sorted out on their own before the dawn of the texting age (see: The Wonder Years).

There’s a timeless, universal quality to many of the girls’ concerns: the social awkwardness and longing, the weed and alcohol, the parties designed to snare that certain someone, and the navigation of parental policies, whether curfew-centric or laissez-faire. Some of the teens are dealing with the sudden death of a parent, others angsting over coming out. All of this is filtered through the specific cosmopolitan prism of New York, with the requisite dashes of glamour and grit. Gage’s approach zeroes in on personal interactions; there are no scenes in school, and she offers glimpses of only three of the girls’ families, some more securely middle-class than others.

While the mercurial Ginger — an aspiring, if unfocused, actor who decides to forgo college — is the film’s most commanding figure, Lena’s story is the most fully formed and involving. Breaking away from the intense close-up mode that defines too much of the doc, the filmmakers trace Lena’s trajectory from the gangly-with-braces stage to her Sarah Lawrence scholarship — by no means a smooth progress, as she and her divorced parents cope with financial struggles, mental illness and tangles with social services. The film’s most searching and affecting observations are hers, particularly those in the final moments.

Also delivering exceptionally smart comments is another college-bound girl, Sage, who looks forward to attending Howard, where she won’t be in the minority. The film, on the other hand, reflects her private-school experience: She and her widowed Jamaican mother are its only black figures.

Individual transitions within the documentary can feel arbitrary or abrupt, accentuating an element of randomness that runs through the finished product. The strong aesthetics may not turn that aimlessness into cohesion, but they tie All This Panic together with a dreamy beauty, even as the film glides past such disturbances as a reference to self-harm, almost reducing it to another element in the aesthetic mix.

As self-proclaimed feminist Sage notes, teenage girls are expected to be seen — and objectified — but not necessarily heard. Asking these seven girls to step out of the day-to-day and reflect on what they’re going through, Gage is alert to their intelligence and beauty, their naiveté and sophistication, and the fluidity of their identities. Above all, she gives them a chance to speak, and she listens.

Distributor: Factory25
Production company: Gage Betterton
With: Dusty Rose Ryan, Delia Cunningham, Lena M, Ginger Leigh Ryan, Olivia Cucinotta, Sage Adams, Nichole R. Thompson-Adams, Kevin Ryan, Tanya Ryan, Ivy Blackshire, Gabriel Sommer, Tess Neau
Director: Jenny Gage
Producers: Christie Colliopoulos, Jennifer Ollman, Jenny Gage, Tom Betterton
Director of photography: Tom Betterton
Editor: Connor Kalista
Composers: Didier Leplae, Joe Wong

79 minutes

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