Teenagers make for natural, even ideal documentary subjects. For one, there’s inherent drama in adolescence, with its natural forward progression and built-in obstacles (big games, big tests, first kisses). Beyond that, young adults can be extremely forthright, their narcissism—healthy if hopefully temporary—fueling the kind of nonstop confessional conversation a filmmaker would be lucky to coax out of older interviewees. The subjects of All This Panic treat the camera not just like a trusted confidant, but also a co-mythologizer. Everyone is the star of their own life story, but for these kids, easing out of childhood and into an uncertain future, that story seems grandly significant, like a soap opera with homework and curfews. Their constant running commentary helps us to see it that way, too.
As in Hoop Dreams or the Up series or Boyhood, there’s a special fascination in seeing people literally grow up on screen. There are seven of them total here: all girls, all coming of age against the bustling backdrop of New York City. For three years, director Jenny Gage follows these Brooklyn private-schoolers as they navigate the minefield of their late teens. Ginger, who’s 16 at the start of filming, decides to forgo college in favor of an acting career (“You can use your emotions to control how other people feel,” she excitedly exclaims), but finds herself trapped in post-high-school limbo, inertia slowing her progress off the couch and into adult life. It doesn’t help that everyone around her is university bound, from her younger sister, Dusty, to best friend Lena, a child of divorce who seems to see higher education partially as an opportunity to escape her tumultuous home life. All This Panic moves outward from this core group to other members of the girls’ social circle, creating an ensemble drama from their various romantic and familial dilemmas.
“People want to see you, but they don’t want to hear you,” Ginger says at one point, acknowledging that, as a young woman, she faces a culture that isn’t always interested in her perspective. But All This Panic is. And given the volume of movies that have illuminated the mind of the teenage boy, Gage’s singular, gendered focus is refreshing; simply offering these young women a platform in which to articulate their immature but still perceptive worldview carries some inherent value. Like a lot of coming-of-age stories, the film also explores how perspective expands with experience. Sage, the only nonwhite student who Gage profiles, confesses that it took transferring to a public school with a more diverse population for her to realize how uncomfortably different she felt as a black student at a predominately white school. Another classmate, surfer Olivia, resists coming out of the closet for years, only to later confess that no one in her life made a big deal out of it when she did.
Mostly, what the girls do is talk, spilling their guts to each other and to the camera, in a way that feels not like arranged talking-head interviews, but like simply eavesdropping on their earnest heart-to-hearts about friendship, virginity, and the looming future. Are they really being completely “themselves” with a camera in their face? Maybe not, but one could argue that there’s always something performative about teenage behavior—especially in an era when kids have taken to documenting their own lives for social-media posterity. Anyway, All This Panic never attempts to manipulate the moments of clarity into sweeping generational insights, nor does it manufacture bigger dramatic stakes. (The friendship between Ginger and Lena, for example, wanes in a heartbreakingly uneventful way, the two just slowly growing apart over the course of several years.) Instead, Gage leans on the bright personalities of her subjects, while using roving handheld camerawork, smears of big-city color, and a shallow depth of field to capture some of the romantic grandeur they see in the world. All This Panic feels like a gift from her to them. Fortunately, we get to enjoy it, too.