Jenny Gage’s All This Panic is a somewhat meandering but engaging documentary about a handful of girls from a private high school in Brooklyn and a couple of their younger sisters. Talking about how girls her age are objectified, Sage Adams says: “People want to see you, but they don’t want to hear what you have to say.” The film is a response to that insidious tendency. Gage and her husband and director of photography, Tom Betterton, appreciate the girls’ beauty, employing magic-hour light that bathes the film’s subjects in a soft glow, but the filmmakers are far more interested in the girls’ inner lives.
Loosely tracked over a three-year period as they hang out, play games, throw drunken parties, and interact with their families, the girls talk constantly, and they have insightful and touching things to say about friendship, their hopes for the future, love, sex, and more. The intensity and volatility of young female friendships surface in the relationship between loyal, grounded Lena M. and high-strung, unhappy Ginger Leigh Ryan, who start out as best friends, but go through a rocky period after Lena heads off to college and Ginger stays home, where she works and hangs out with a new group of friends.
There are also poignant glimpses into the girls’ family lives. A moment of intimacy between Ginger and her little sister, Dusty Rose, on a rooftop is so resonant because we’ve heard Dusty confess that she wishes she had a closer relationship with the standoffish Ginger. Meanwhile, Ginger’s defensiveness and quick temper may be due at least partly to the prickly relationship she has with her father, who can’t seem to find a kind word to say to or about her.
Bigger dramas and matters of identity are mostly touched on in passing, which leaves audiences at a bit of a remove from the subjects. Lena mentions the steady descent of her divorced parents into homelessness, so we know that her mother has lost her apartment and her father is in danger of losing his, but if it upsets her emotional equilibrium we don’t see it, though she talks about being worried about her little brother, who still lives with their dad. And though it’s interesting to hear Sage, the sole non-white member of the group, say that she looks forward to going to Howard because she expects to be able to “breathe” there in a way that she never quite could at her almost all-white high school, her observation raises more questions than it answers, since it’s the only time anyone in the film mentions ethnicity.
Taken individually, almost every scene in All This Panic feels vivid and true, but all together they’re a bit too unconnected and episodic to achieve real emotional heft. But there’s plenty of life in this honest, impressionistic portrait of a cohort of 21st-century American girls.