A slender, artfully shot, loosely structured documentary that captures moments in the lives of seven mostly middle-class New York City girls as they blossom over a three-year period, “All This Panic” is more remarkable for the way it looks than the actual, somewhat banal, girl-talk content. This first feature from former fine arts photographers Jenny Gage (who produces and directs) and her partner, cinematographer Tom Betterton, is comprised of small vignettes showing the girls reflecting on a variety of issues, including high school cliques, what to wear, dating, sexuality, and family problems.
Level-headed Lena M. quickly emerges as the most sympathetic subject as she rises above her dysfunctional family situation and her rejection by a high school crush, and eventually earns a scholarship to Sarah Lawrence. When, after her freshman year in college, neither of her divorced parents have a home to house her, she once again makes lemons into lemonade by planning to spend her summer traveling to visit various friends and relatives.
Less sympathetic, but commanding a great deal of the running time are sisters Ginger and Dusty Ryan. Prickly Ginger, who is Lena’s high school bestie, lacks her pal’s ambition and work ethic. Early on, she seems most concerned with her makeup, drinking, and partying, while her constantly changing hair color and style clues viewers in on the passing of time. While Lena mostly moves on to college, Ginger decides to take a year off, but rather than making something of her time, she remains in her comfortable Brooklyn family house, seeming rather lost. When she’s not visiting Lena and other friends at Sarah Lawrence, she’s partying with the more street-wise Ivy.
Dusty, Ginger’s junior by a few years, hangs with her articulate freckled pal Delia. The filmmakers capture them riding bikes or posing on a ferry, with their long hair blowing in the wind. It’s their conversation that explains the title: “All This Panic” is what high school juniors experience over what to wear to school.
Two other teens, Olivia Cucinotta and Sage Adams, might ostensibly be more interesting, but are so little in the film that viewers don’t understand their connection to the other subjects. Tall, thin surfer-girl Olivia muses to the camera about liking girls, but notes that she doesn’t feel she could discuss her sexuality with her parents. Luckily, her college experience seems to help her overcome her anxiety about coming out.
Meanwhile, African-American feminist Sage shares her feelings about losing her father and has some charming interactions with her widowed mother, Nichole R. Thompson-Adams, but lacks the same story arc as the other characters. She couldn’t be more right when she remarks about the way people prefer to look at teen girls rather than hear them talk, as evidenced by a film in which footage of the young ladies in motion trumps yet another conversation in which the over-used word “like” becomes an annoying tic.
Gage and Betterton enjoy extraordinary access to their young subjects, so much so that it feels as if some scenes are staged. Using camera lenses more commonly utilized in narrative filmmaking, Betterton’s framing exudes creative skill and taste, and his lensing of the subjects in motion is lyrical.