Words: Pia Svensson
“Do you think if you could go back and start high school over, knowing everything you know now, would you?”
“I think I’d do it over”
“I’d do sort of the same things, just, different”
Hands up if navigating through your teenage years is something you remember both with a heady mix of pure elation and dread; the complex and emotional rollercoaster of school, parents, first love, sex, friendships and alcohol all tangled up in our quest to discover who we are.
Everyone can relate to the universal girlhood urge to be older than our years; being fourteen but wanting to be sixteen, then to be eighteen – to be adults. Confined by our youth, being unable to do what we want while struggling with the unescapable pressure of having to figure out what we want to be when we finally do ‘grow up’ – the teenage panic is well and truly real.
In Jenny Gage’s 79-minute documentary, All This Panic, we follow seven teenage girls in Brooklyn over the course of three years, dealing with this and more in front of Gage’s and husband/cinematographer Thomas Betterton’s camera.
From the outset, the film is an honest and intimate insight into these girls’ lives. We are immersed in their world with some girls craving to be free of their youth and become adults, whereas others are content to live out their high school years for just a bit longer. By using camera techniques usually reserved for scripted feature films, All This Panic is given a cinematic treatment that emphasises the dream state of how teenagers imagine their lives being played out - like a film. But the hazy and slightly shaky camera reveals the gritty reality of their lives ahead. The film is woven with extreme close-ups of the girls; lingering shots of their mouths speaking, hands braiding hair; all so close we can see all their freckles and dimples, their unashamedly beautiful flaws. Some may feel Betterton’s lens to be too claustrophobic or voyeuristic. Watching the girls, you may find yourself holding your breath until the camera retracts to a less intimate distance, but with this closeness, the filmmakers perfectly portray the teenage feeling of being alone against the world.
The girls couldn’t be more different, yet their dilemmas intertwine to bring them together, providing a faithful and relatable portrait of each girl’s challenges as they move through high school to college and beyond.
There’s Lena, who has high hopes of becoming a philosophy professor but is set back due to problems in her family; Ginger, a budding actress who will do anything to escape her family; Dusty and Delia, best friends who never want to leave high school; Olivia, struggling to come to terms with her new-found sexuality; carefree Ivy and last but not least the outspoken Sage, who drops the film’s most resonant line: “People want to see you but they don’t want to hear what you want to say.”
These girls are expressive, smart and empathetic, and what Gage and Betterton do is actively break with Sage’s true observation. They let the girls speak, allowing the viewer space to listen to their stories without judgement. The film brilliantly acknowledges the maturity of teenage girls in the modern-day society by letting the girls narrate their own lives. Gage and Betterton mention how they would let the camera roll to let the girls talk about whatever they felt like. What started out as normal conversations about their days, soon went deeper to the uncomfortable but genuine parts of teenage life, as they began to forget about and feel at ease in the camera’s presence.
“We wanted to explore their experiences of being a human being and being a young woman in the world and how often nobody wants to hear their stories.” Jenny Gage
What’s most surprising about the girls is that they manage to stay friends. When Ginger decides to skip college altogether, she befriends a new, more rebellious group while Lena and Olivia both go off to university, yet they don’t let this come in way of their friendship. Our teenage years are for most people the time when we try out new things and new friends, and often, earlier friendships must give way to new ones. Seeing the girls keeping in touch and stepping forward into the future despite the challenges we’ve been following them go through, is for the audience a sort of relief – both because we feel for the girls and their lives, and because it makes us remember the difficulties of our own teenage years.
Three years after we first start to follow them, the seven heroines reflect on how their lives have changed through the decisions they made. In the beginning of the film they throw teen parties and gossip about which boy they’d like to kiss. It’s all like a fun game for them, but as the film progresses and they age, the girls’ answers become more mature and they start to be aware of not only the choices they make, but of how those choices affect the people around them.
It is a celebration of womanhood through a nurturing female gaze, making us wonder if that despite the challenges we were faced with as teenagers, would we do it again, and if we could, how we would do it differently?