Teenagers—teen girls in particular—get a bad rap, and often the worst of it comes from grown women reflecting on the naïveté or recklessness of their youth. If you survive the raging hormones, double standards, and general confusion of your teens, it's easy (and in some cases perhaps necessary) to distill your memory of your former self down to something of a caricature, someone that you were but have no connection to now that you've outgrown that brat, dork, slut, psycho.
Director Jenny Gage's documentary "All This Panic" is a reminder that while teen girls are not fully matured and their experience in life is limited, they contain the complexity and often the wisdom of grown adults. The film follows three years in the lives of seven young women growing up in New York, catching ostensibly mundane moments in their daily activities like taking the subway, throwing parties, smoking weed, navigating social media, gossiping. And then: plotting their adult lives, dealing with family crises, finding love. But each scene feels like a precious moment, because it is.
Gage and her cinematographer husband Tom Betterton home in on two friends in particular, Lena and Ginger. Lena is trying to enter adulthood and enjoy the ride along the way, but her obligation to her struggling family—plagued by homelessness, joblessness, and mental illness—threatens to interrupt her education and growth as an individual. Ginger, on the other hand, fears aging above all else, and imposes upon herself a state of arrested development. When Lena moves off to college, Ginger stays behind with the intention of pursuing an acting career but is regularly berated by her family, who she still depends on, for making too weak an effort. Though best friends in high school, the two follow entirely different trajectories under entirely different forces.
Lena and Ginger and their friendship were forged in New York City, where, as Ginger's younger sister Dusty explains, "you're doing more adult stuff at a younger age." There's an improvisational aspect to traversing their labyrinthian physical environment that runs parallel to self-exploration—never having a fixed destination, or thinking they know where they're going until the world around them seems to grow even bigger.
As the girls move through the city, the camera follows like one of the group, bearing witness to their confessions, moving closer as exchanges become more intimate, sometimes shifting in and out of focus (particularly at parties). Capturing honest affection often lost in the formalities and isolation of adulthood, the frame fixates on physical contact as the friends hold hands, do each other's hair and makeup, embrace. Gage cuts through and does away with any pretense the girls might try to construct as self-protection (as teens—and adults—are wont to do); she's more interested in the instances where such facades are unnecessary. And there we have a rare portrait of life on the edge of the future—of what it feels like to be a person.
"All That Panic," directed by Jenny Gage, screens at the Parkway Theatre May 12-18.